Mental Health: Sad Work And Stuff

I Am Grumpus Max-bob-bomb …

…and I am here to make you think about work and get sad and stuff.

Part of the side effects from my PTS means the wrong damn song, movie, book, or thought can be problematic from time to time. This happened recently. While I was typing an article about pensions and streaming some music, a sad song played over my headphones. That’s not always an issue, except I’d never heard this song before, so I didn’t know to skip it. The song’s subject related to one of the causes of my PTS. As a result, I scrambled for the volume control before tears erupted uncontrollably. Alas, I was too slow. As a result, I spent the next few hours trying to control the flood of emotions that washed over me.

Unlike my previous articles on my mental health and job struggles, this article isn’t about anger. It’s about sadness. In true Grumpus Maximus form though, the article is still relevant to the topics of personal finance, careers, and the Golden Albatross. Yet, much like my Worth vs. “Worth It” article, this story is raw and personal. Even more so than my previous article in fact. If that isn’t your thing, I completely understand and don’t hold it against you. Click away now.

For those who choose to stay, consider yourself warned…

The Path To The Dark Side

In early December 2012, I was scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan. I missed my intended deployment date by a week. The night prior to deployment Mrs. Grumpus and I left Grumpus Minimi #1 with a babysitter and attended an end of 1st-trimester check-up with Mrs. Grumpus’s midwife. We planned the routine appointment as a final special moment prior to my deployment. It proved final and special, but for all the wrong reasons. That evening we discovered Mrs. Grumpus had miscarried.

The event emotionally devastated the both of us. The relatively problem-free first pregnancy that produced 10lbs Grumpus Minimi #1 lulled us into a false sense of security for the second. As a result, we weren’t prepared for the emotional ton of bricks that dropped on us that night. The thought of my babbling tear-filled phone call to our babysitter after we discovered the results still makes me cry today.

I had experienced some bad moments in my life prior to that night. I was almost killed at 13 years old in an accident which left my body horribly mangled. I’d lost a friend and personal mentor to a combat death in Iraq in 2003. I was nearly killed again while on a mission in 2009. However, nothing in my life, before or since, compares to the collective sadness my wife and I shared that evening or in the following days.

The miscarriage required several small medical procedures, not all of which were completed before I deployed. The week’s delay in my deployment provided just enough time to ensure Mrs. Grumpus got through the primary medical procedure and linked up with her mental health professional. She’d suffered through serious post-partum depression after Minimi #1, so I considered this vital. And then … I deployed as an Individual Augmentee (IA) for four months to a war most Americans had forgotten about, and whose course of events I was unable to affect in the least.

As bitter as I am about it, the truth is I could’ve decided not to deploy. The consequences would’ve been severe, but I could’ve done it. I didn’t get out of the deployment though. Even though it wasn’t my unit in Afghanistan; the person I volunteered to replace at that unit was from my organization … and had a pregnant wife at home. Thus, I felt some obligation to meet the commitment I’d made. More to the point though, and as awful as it sounds, I needed the deployment.

Where My Mind Was At

After my the deployment in 2009 (during which I was almost killed), I was burnt out. I’d spent 13 months out of the previous 24 deployed, and had spent another 5 months in training away from home. Thus, I took advantage of a change of duty station and unit to sit the war(s) out for a few years.

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Just going to sit here a while …

I put the time-off to what I felt was a good use. I repaired some of the inevitable damage that my previous deployments caused my marriage. Mrs. Grumpus and I got right with each other. We then decided to try for our first child. That happened quickly and we had our first by Spring 2011. Parenting (after the post-partum) proved to be so fulfilling, that we decided to start trying for another.

While all that was going on, I continued to work hard at my new unit, but I never stuck my hand in the air for a deployment. Everyone was deploying in one capacity or another. I figured it was a matter of time before my number came up; so I enjoyed the time at home until my turn came. In the meantime, as a result of hard work (and a lot of luck), I finagled a follow-on tour to a choice job in Europe which would start in mid-2013.

At that point, it was mid-2012, and I began to realize I needed to deploy to stay competitive for my next promotion. My follow-on job in Europe wasn’t going to help my chances of promotion much. Plus, while I’d sat on the sidelines for three years, my peers continued to deploy. Although Iraq had shut down by that point (prior to ramping up again for ISIS) the surge to Afghanistan had my organization deploying hot and heavy. If I didn’t deploy prior to heading to Europe, my chances for staying competitive for promotion looked slim. Conversely, if I did deploy, I believed I’d promote without a problem.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t desire a promotion so I could keep climbing the ranks. My concerns were far more practical. Not promoting would’ve caused a whole slew of problems with my ability to provide for my expanding family. This includes the potential of missing out on the all-important 20 years required for my military pension and a lifetime of subsidized healthcare. Thus, by the time I pulled my head away from my family in the Summer of 2012, I was inside 12 months from departing my current command for Europe while looking for a deployment with a pregnant wife. At the time I felt fortunate to find a deployment whose timing worked out perfectly – a short four months to Afghanistan. I’d be back for the birth and in time to move the family to Europe. What could go wrong?

A Few Last Stops On The Way Down

I didn’t know it at the time, but the circumstances under which I deployed after the miscarriage destroyed any remaining mental resiliency left in my arsenal. PTS was not only likely but the natural conclusion to these events. Like a dam with one too many fissures, or the incoming tide washing away a sandcastle, the results proved slow but inevitable. I have no idea how, but I struggled on for three more years prior to my mental breakdown … and eventually (begrudgingly) reaching out for help.

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The type of thing Mrs. Grumpus and I never got a chance to do.

By the time I returned from Afghanistan in the Spring of 2013, my wife had moved on emotionally, and the family had a trans-Atlantic change of duty station to execute. So I did what any military-age male with my demeanor does, shoved those shitty feelings down deep into my emotional rucksack and Charlie Miked (Continued Mission). When the dam finally burst, I was three years on, almost ready to change duty stations again.

In hindsight that was obviously a mistake. Despite carrying myself with the outward appearance of calm for the majority of those three years in Europe; inside I was an emotional wreck. Leakage in the form of erratic and uncontrollable angry outbursts, or randomly tear-filled moments, appeared more frequently.

My family took the brunt of it, but not all of it. Scaring to within an inch of his life the “asshole” who dared block my driveway with his car one day (when Mrs. Grumpus was pregnant with Minimi #2), and fighting with my older brother at a family reunion for daring to curse in front of Minimi #1, are two of the more egregious examples of my behavior. I realize only now that the over-protectiveness of my family was textbook PTS behavior.

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Grumpus brotherly love

My physical health started to deteriorate as well. Sudden onset acid reflux was first. I’d never experienced acid reflux in my life but started throwing up routinely. After numerous tests (which verified it was real, not psychosomatic), and months of medication; I finally resorted to surgery. Then came sinus infection after sinus infection, which again required surgery.

Only upon mental break down did I seek professional help. The break down wasn’t as dramatic as Ed Norton’s character in Fight Club realizing he was Tyler Durden. It was still emotional though, and hard. What can I say? Talking about feelings and sad stuff ain’t easy for a guy like me. However, for the good of myself and my family, I did it. I learned a thing or two as well.

Therapy, THER-a-PEE

I’d love to say that therapy was the cure-all I wanted it to be, but it wasn’t. That should be obvious to anyone reading this story, or other parts of my blog. It helped though. It especially helped me to understand the core problems. Once I unpacked the grief from the miscarriage (which I never got a chance to properly mourn while in Afghanistan or afterward) I found immense sadness and guilt. Sadness at the thought of losing the pregnancy. Guilt about deploying and abandoning my wife for the demands of my career.

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More sad stuff ahead

Like the grooves on a vinyl album, the sadness had worn an indelible impression on my psyche and soul by the time I sought help. I doubt those will ever fade away. When something triggers my sadness, like the song from the other night, it feels as if a hole opens up in my chest. That hole seems as deep as the one created the night Mrs. Grumpus and I learned of the miscarriage. It’s inexplicable and doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. All I know is what tends to set it off like songs, movies, television, discussions, or books which address the death of a child. I tend to avoid those things these days.

“Wars Make Not One Great”

The guilt is something different altogether. As my therapist pointed out, there were completely rational reasons as to why I had to follow through with the commitment I made to deploy to Afghanistan. Not only would there have been repercussions for not deploying but by deploying I ensured long-term security for my family by staying competitive for promotion.

My therapist pushed me to have the same conversation with Mrs. Grumpus, so I could hear first hand if Mrs. Grumpus understood the situation in the same terms. Much to Mrs. Grumpus’s credit, when I eventually talked with her, she told me the same thing my therapist did — that she understood the reasons why I deployed and supported them. However, none of that; the discussions with the therapist or with Mrs. Grumpus; did much to wash away the feelings of just how much I felt like … a goddamned mercenary.

The entry for mercenary at Wikipedia begins with these two sentences:

A mercenary[1] is a person who takes part in an armed conflict who is completely funded by the government and is “motivated to take part in the hostilities by desire for private gain”.[2][3] Mercenaries fight for money or other recompense rather than for political interests.

Just to be clear, that’s not why I originally joined the U.S. military. I joined to serve, give back to my country, and be a part of something greater than myself. However, when all was said and done, my deployment to Afghanistan boiled down to a need for “private gain”. Extrapolating those feelings up a level, 13 years into my time in the service, this is what my career had come down to as well … nothing more than a mercenary endeavor to secure my family’s, and my, financial future. The irony that Afghanistan proved the burial place of the pretenses surrounding my service isn’t lost on me. I’ve no doubt many a Macedonian and British soldier felt the same during their campaigns those lands as well.

The Butcher’s Bill

Some jobs demand more than others on a routine basis. At some point, all jobs make demands that may prove too much for a person to take. I should’ve said “enough” in December 2012, but I had no alternative paradigm to look towards. This deployment was before my discovery of Financial Independence (FI) and the concept of FU money. Thus, I couldn’t see my way past the situation.

As I chronicled in An Unintentional Meander Up Grumpy Avenue (Part 1), if I hadn’t squandered a significant chunk of money on a condominium in Southern California at the height of the housing market in 2004; things may have turned out differently. That money may have given me the confidence to say “no mas” even without an understanding of the Principles of FI, or “The Simple Path to Wealth” as a guide.

Things didn’t play out that way though. There was no money, and certainly no understanding on my part of alternatives. Plus, I had a lifetime invested in the idea of serving in the military. In other words, there was a lot of momentum built up in the trajectory I was on.

Instead, I chose to stuff more and more into my emotional rucksack. Like some sin-eater gorging himself on the transgressions of others with no understanding of the burden; I thought I could shove everything down deep and soldier on. I believed I had to carry my family on my shoulders and be the provider they needed. I couldn’t. Nor should I ever thought I had to.

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Like a sherpa, I loaded up that pack. Unlike a sherpa, I couldn’t take the load.

In hindsight, the scariest realization from all of this was the fact that I never truly considered not going to Afghanistan. Whether I had “go fever”, or whether my tendency as a linear problem solver had taken over at that point; I was deploying. As an example of how bad my mentality was, my mother had to talk me into simply asking for a delay in my deployment. Fast forward three years, it’s no wonder I started to leak errant behavior and then finally broke down.

Unlike Yoda’s sage wisdom, it wasn’t fear that led to the Dark Side for me, but guilt. In case you don’t remember, or never saw Star Wars, I’ve drawn you a diagram:

Guilt —> Anger —> Hate —> Dark Side

My guilt over deploying after the miscarriage led to anger. Not that I ever needed more fuel for my anger, but now I was angry about everything and didn’t know why. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that I was angry with myself. That anger transitioned into hate. Hate of self and everyone around me. That hate led to the Dark Side and ultimately my break down.

Don’t Try This At Home Kids

I found myself deploying in December 2012 a week after my wife miscarried because I erroneously believed I didn’t have a choice when it came to securing my family’s financial future. That decision caused serious damage to my psyche and self-esteem. Obviously, it’s too late for me, but it may not be too late for you. While I pick up the pieces, you can avoid crashing altogether by refusing to place a job above your mental health. The good news is that if you’re reading this, you’ve already done more than I ever did prior to deploying to Afghanistan to investigate a different way.

In reality, though, I did have a choice. I had plenty of choices. While I certainly wasn’t living my financial life “intentionally” at that point; it’s not like we were destitute or I was unemployable. Mrs. Grumpus and I had tracked and saved our money for years. We lived well below our means, even with a newborn. So, there were plenty of alternatives: from running the risk of not promoting by not deploying, to transitioning to the reserves, or leaving the service for the civilian world.

I couldn’t grasp the alternatives conceptually because I hadn’t taken the time to educate myself. I wasn’t listening to financial podcasts, reading financial books or blogs. While I lacked the financial knowledge, I also lacked the self-belief. I had no blog where I could exercise other interests or my writing abilities. In fact, other than investing time in being a good husband and father (and surfing), I wasn’t really doing much to make myself a more well-rounded person.

I’d grown complacent, and stupidly ignored the warning that life provided me in 2009 too. My brush with death while on that mission seriously shook my belief in the “cause”, but I never gave those doubts serious consideration for the alternative choices they might hold. Thus, my lack of proactivity and uninformed beliefs contributed heavily to the circumstances and the decision I made back in December 2012. It is place I never wish to find myself again, and a place I hope you never find yourself either.

Mental Health Epilogue

At the end of the day, I didn’t write this article as an attempt to curry sympathy with my small readership, but as a cautionary tale. If it helps one person avoid the mistakes I made, then it’s worth the pain required to revisit some of these issues. At the same time, it helps me to write about my mental health issues, so don’t think I did it for purely selfless reasons. However, it helps me to know that my words help others — which means I’m interested in feedback. While I’m happy to commiserate, I find discussion more constructive. If you’re inclined that way, please let me hear from you.

6 thoughts on “Mental Health: Sad Work And Stuff”

  1. My wife and I suffered three miscarriages between our two children. It is not pain I would wish on even my enemy. So having this pain as well as exposure other types put a strain on one function. You finally found help with dealing. Time does not heal all but does provide distance.

  2. Thanks for the courage & motivation to put the information out there, Grumpus. We need more discussions about staying in the wrong job for too long due to seeking financial security.

    I know several veterans with PTS, to the point of inpatient treatment while they were on active duty.

    If there’s such a thing as healing from PTS, it happened much more quickly for them after they were out of the military workplace and in a different environment… either FI or in a civilian career that they found at least as challenging & fulfilling.

    1. Thanks Doug. It means a lot coming from a mentor like you. As I’ve said in other forums, I’m committed to talking about and normalizing my PTS. I’d be hypocrite if I didn’t talk about the mental health repercussions of my career decisions given how inextricably linked they are. If I’d only educated myself on the various options out there, I may not have “worked” myself into this mess in the first place!

  3. GM Thank you for sharing this. It’s a powerful story and will help people. Couldn’t have been fun to write. I have only deployed twice and was way more lucky in terms of timing.
    I see a lot of people (myself included) who use the “duty” part of the job to focus on, instead of work they (I) need to do in the rest of my life. Something I struggle with for sure.

    1. Your Welcome Army Doc. It was not as bad to write as it is to read on a public forum. However, I’m not only committed to discussing FI and pension issues, but also committed to how money and career decisions impact mental health as well. In fact, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t do so since my story is inextricably linked between my financial decisions, career decisions, and mental health. Regards, GM

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