HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
The first time it happened I was a child.
I was innocent to the whirlwind of chaos around me, ignorant to the tragedy of a self-inflicted death. I had experienced loss to death before, but not like this.
The first time I was brushed by the cold hand of suicide, I could not understand.
The second time it happened, I did not have the luxury of childhood innocence. I was an adult, stationed thousands of miles away from everyone I loved. I still remember the cryptic text message from my mother, “we need to talk now.” I assumed something bad had happened, but was not prepared for the freight train that was about to hit me.
The most vivid memory I have from this experience is the blank and vacant look on my cousin’s face as he gazed upon his father’s grave. It was the kind of look that sends chills down your spine and stops you in your tracks. It is a look I hoped to never see again, and a feeling I would not wish upon my worst enemy.
Like me, he did not have the luxury of childhood innocence to shield him from reality.
I felt his overwhelming mix of emotions through his empty expression. His anger entangled with sorrow, misplaced guilt laced with regret and an overwhelming confusion hung in the air as he remained silent.
It was in this moment I understood what I had not been able to before. It was in this moment I understood the true tragedy of suicide.
The third time it happened, I was somewhat of an outsider to the situation. It was a family member on my husband’s side, someone I had met briefly, but grown fond of.
I will never forget the inaudible phone call I received in the middle of the grocery store. The sound of pure panic and confusion, the sound of a loved one trying to make sense of something senseless.
Once again, I was face-to-face with the haunting look from before. Time seemed to stand still as my husband tried to comprehend his loss.
All three of these loved ones could be described as warm, charismatic, humorous and captivating. There were few people they did not get along with. They were the kind of people you want to surround yourself with. They were the kind of people you would not expect this from.
It is impossible to determine the exact reason a person chooses suicide. It is the most personal and independent decision an individual can make.
Their choice was influenced by forces we outsiders cannot see and hear. Forces impossible to understand unless you have come face-to-face with them. Forces more powerful than anything you have experienced before, except the will to live.
Each of us battle these forces in our own way.
I am no stranger to the plight of mental illness.
My inner monster fills my head with lies. It clouds my reality, leads me to question everything and even re-writes history.
It says you are not worthy, no one loves you, and you have no control.
The monster says there is no turning back, there is no hope and you have no way out.
Do not listen to the monster.
Do not choose a permanent solution to fix a temporary state.
To those of you who have also lost loved ones to suicide, remember, it is not your fault.
It is easy to convince yourself that you are the reason it happened. Somehow, taking the blame for your loved one’s decision is more palatable than accepting the fact you had no control. What if I had called? Why did I not see the signs? Why did I not do more?
You cannot fight their battles for them; you gave them your love, and that is all you could do.
As we move through the month of September, Suicide Prevention Month, I ask one thing of you -- embrace everyone you meet with empathy and understanding. You never know who is battling a monster within. We can look for signs of suicidal behavior, but just like my three loved ones, not everyone will show the signs.
Connect with your fellow Airmen so you can identify when they seem off or act different than before. Look for the person who is withdrawn and feels hopeless.
Most importantly, do not trivialize the pain someone is experiencing.
While the world can always be worse in your eyes, you cannot see into the world of the person in front of you.
To those of you battling this monster, you are not alone.
You are not helpless and you are not weak. There are people standing by ready and waiting to help you, please, go to them. Whatever is holding you back, whatever fears you have, they are not worth your life.
Getting help was the scariest, most intimidating and most liberating decision I have made for myself.
You deserve happiness, you deserve to be in control, and you deserve to feel whole.
There are a number of resources available to military members and their families.
The Military Crisis Line offers confidential help 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255, option 1.
Additionally, the Defense Department’s campaign #BeThere offers outreach for active-duty, National Guard, Reservists and their families. You can call 1-844-357-7337 to speak with veterans who understand life in the military community.
Military One Source offers confidential services 24/7 online and by phone. You can call 1-800-342-9647 or visit www.militaryonesource.mil.
Your local chaplin and chaplin’s assistants offer completely confidential guidance and counseling. You can also contact your local Military Treatment Facility to speak with your primary care manager or the Mental Health Clinic.
For a comprehensive list of resources visit the Defense Suicide Prevention Office’s website at http://www.dspo.mil.