Shrapnel in the Soul
“There is nothing either good or bad,
but thinking makes it so”.
A quote from "Hamlet"
by William Shakespeare.
Warning, this article contains reference to suicide
When I contemplated suicide and had a psychological breakdown in 2008 it was the biggest sense of failure I’d ever experienced.
Months earlier I was flying missions in Afghanistan, leading and working with incredible men and women. Now, I’m convulsing, incoherent and sobbing uncontrollably. What the hell happened? The answer was a mixture of PTSD, depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse and bullying. Not a fun combo, but not uncommon for those with one or more of those issues happening in their life.
I had been a Commanding Officer of an Aviation unit on operations and now was crying on the floor. In that moment I thought I’d failed. Not just a little failure, but a massive failure. I thought I’d failed my country, our Army, my unit, my colleagues, my subordinates, my parents, my wife, my family. I was convinced I had failed everyone.
From the moment you get off the bus at officer or recruit training, the concept of pride is verbally, visually, physically and emotionally reinforced at every opportunity. “Be proud of your country!”. “Be proud of your service!”. “Be proud of your unit!”. “Be proud of your team!”. Flags, guidons, uniforms, patches, honour walls, unit history and so much more ensures every individual in the military knows the need for pride-in-self and pride-in-service.
Equally, there’s another message transmitted simultaneously that’s crystal clear; “don’t dare go jack on your mates!”. To let down the team; to be selfish; to not be a team player; they’re immutable, unforgivable military sins.
With both these themes forming an integral part of the military training psyche (for good reason when you get to the battlefield), it’s not too far a stretch to see how one can feel like they’ve failed when they get to the point of psychological distress and suicidal ideation.
It also shows the binary nature that permeates so much of military life. Yes, most military operations happen in an incredibly dynamic, complex and high intensity environment, but ultimately, military operations are about solving problems. There’s a problem; fix the problem, now move onto the next problem and fix that.
Whilst we operate in the grey, the outcomes are often binary. Indeed, many of our operational decisions are literally life and death. There are no higher stakes. It’s a stark example of how binary (black or white) thinking is reinforced and rewarded in military life.
I had a deep-seated shame for my perceived failure and a burning bitterness for several things that had happened. So deep and painful were my negative emotions, I asked my wife to keep it a secret so that it would never be a topic of conversation personally or professionally. We held that secret for what ended up being seven years, until I finally realised that the secret we were keeping was actually keeping us.
That realisation came from a combination of business coaching, being part of a supportive, tight-knit and non-judgemental business group, and exploring the concept of paradox. As a self-proclaimed expert in black or white thinking, paradox (a logically self-contradictory statement or a statement that runs contrary to one's expectation) simply couldn’t exist in my view.
The reality is that paradox is all around us. For there to be light, there must be dark; and yin and yang from Chinese philosophy are just two examples.
With this new-found guidance and wisdom not only did I realise that shame is the opposite of pride, but that when I was full of pride, I was also full of shame, or at least the potential for shame. Leading up to my breakdown in 2008 I had my mask on tight attempting to hide my illness and ideation from others. But when the psychological dam burst and I had an immense feeling of failure, all my pride was taken away in an instant, releasing the potential shame to become a torrent of real shame in my mind. It felt like I had shrapnel in my soul.
The longer I kept the secret, the deeper I buried that shrapnel. Shame loves secrecy and hiding. It feeds on it. The more fearful you are of a secret being found out, the greater the shame becomes. Therefore, the way to defeat shame is to release it to the public (or at least a trusted friend/clinician).
I bawled my eyes out when my coach told me I had to tell other people. But a month later I did with the support of 150 people in the group I mentioned earlier. Although I expected the world to swallow me whole, the opposite happened. I was embraced by dozens of people, mostly men, telling me their story is just like mine, but they haven’t got the guts to talk about it yet. From that day, the shame no longer had a secret to feed on. It starved and hasn’t been seen since.
That worst day of my life is now one of my most accomplished. I don’t look back on it with either pride or shame. I see it now as a day, neither good nor bad. A day that created a new chapter in my life from which incredible opportunities, challenges and experiences have shaped me to the person I am today, able to serve in a whole new way.
This article was originally published in Issue 5 of ANTARES: The World of Military Aviation