Today was a big news day. I received the exact news that I had been expecting and have been mentally preparing for: I have been found unfitting for military service for schizophrenia by the US Army. After over 14 years of service I will be retired.
I’ve taken the news pretty in-stride. I thought that this was going to be the case over two years ago when I was sent in-patient for a month of psychiatric treatment. Those last couple of years have been a circus of diagnosis, medications, treatments, a gradual relaxation on the information I was withholding and a lot of frustration. This has been a prime time for The Dragon to claw and gnash at my psyche and for my schizophrenic symptoms to grow into what they are now. (I’m making a mental note that I really need to write a blog post introducing my inner demon, The Dragon.)
But I remind myself that this is just another label. Sure, it comes with consequences of my uniformed military career ending and the beginning of a stressful job search and transition. Those are going to be tough things, but the most painful acclimation has been to the label itself.
It is easy for a person with only a “normal” amount of inner demons to turn this label into a series of other labels: failure, loser, crazed and so on. Add on schizoaffective disorder with major depression and this label making really goes into overdrive. Since this has been a long-time-coming the scars and wounds from The Dragon are deep and painful. I struggle so very much with this and it is very difficult to hold my head high.
The Dragon has a weakness though: a completely trusted member of my support network. My wife has been faithfully pointing out to me throughout this long process that my career is characterized not by how it has ended, but by what I’ve done during it.
And I’ve done some amazing things. I served as a construction manager on a couple of dozen projects in Iraq and Alaska, I helped build a bridge across the Tigris River, I gave my best to care for hundreds of Soldiers, I’ve participated in more training events then I could ever count, I’ve jumped out of planes, I nearly froze to death in a Missouri winter, I’ve participated in a few missions that are classified, I’ve obtained two graduate degrees, I’ve earned the respect of amazing friends and colleagues, and so many other things.
So I’m going to focus on a different label: veteran. And when The Dragon tells me that I’m a failure I’ll remind myself of my accomplishments. When it calls me a loser I’ll remind myself that throughout my career I was one of the best. When The Dragon tells me that I’m crazed, well, on that one I might agree, except I can remind myself that through all the crazy I was still successful.
I wish it were that simple, but it is an endless struggle. Chronic mental health conditions are an unwinnable tug-of-war. We have to keep pulling and fighting every single day. But there is some relief. We can use tools to help us pull, like fighting back against labels. And we don’t have to pull alone. My wife has been right there with me. Use your tools and let your support network help. I’m not unfitting because of what I have done. I’m unfitting because the Army doesn’t want to hand a weapon to or deploy someone with my diagnosis, symptoms and medications. It really isn’t personal.
Here’s my label: Decorated combat veteran with 14 years of active duty military service. That is a lot more fitting than unfitting.
This is a great lesson for anyone. Everyone’s inner-critic likes to focus on labels. What are the labels that yours throw