Am I only one I know, waging my wars behind my face and above my throat?
— Twenty-One Pilots, Migraine
How Was Your Week?
Last Friday wasn’t the best day for me mentally. I don’t know if the stress of a few hectic work weeks which included a lot of travel finally caught up, or if I missed my meds the night before. Maybe it was both. Maybe it was something else entirely. Either way, I didn’t feel the most stable. I think it was fairly apparent to several of my co-workers as I lost my cool (just a wee bit) during a meeting. For a moment, it felt like the bureaucracy was going to grind my bones to grist before I could escape. As a result, several hours after the meeting the weight of the Golden Albatross still felt insurmountable. Never a good feeling.
As one of my Facebook readers once wrote, “Some days you slay the dragon, some days the dragon slays you.” Friday the dragon slew me, and it caught me off guard. It’s been a while since I’ve experienced a day like it. In fact, it might be the first day in over a year that I’ve lost my cool in a work environment. Home is a different matter, and the typical battlefield where I struggle to keep these sort of emotions in check (which of course is worse, and a different story altogether). Losing it at work, on the other hand, is an anomaly. As a result, I wasn’t ready to handle it.
Searching Around for the Tools
To be honest, my internal coping mechanisms are rusty. I’m supposed to practice my breathing, meditate, sleep longer at night, and exercise routinely. Other than biking to and from work, father/kid Karate kid class on the weekends, and making some dietary changes; I’ve not been doing anything routinely. Even my biking routine experienced interruptions as of late due to my Charlie Brown E-bike Blues.
Sure, I’ve taken my meds regularly, but that’s not a panacea. Nor, as the doctor points out, can I stay on them forever. The other things are important for a number of reasons, but mostly they help me keep my shit together until I can eliminate the stress that is military life … and retire. According to the retirement plan I devised, I can do that in a little less than three years, or approximately 1005 days, give or take. Actually, counting by days makes it way too long. A little less than three years it is then!
A Gift Horse …
The week needn’t have ended like that for me. A couple of great things occurred earlier in the week that should’ve put me in a lot better place mentally. The Grumpus Maximus family spent a great Thanksgiving weekend together with plenty of food, outdoor family time, and thankfulness. I also had the pleasure of watching a co-worker take his first major steps on the path to Financial Independence (FI) after many of months of coaching him on the issue. Much like me, after running the numbers, he came to the conclusion that post-military retirement life need not include work if he saved more now and invested just a little smarter. Of course, the military pension is the linchpin to his plan. As he described how his epiphany alleviated his stress and anxiety, it felt like I was talking to myself approximately 18 months ago.
My co-worker wasted no time either. Over 10 days he transferred his taxable investment accounts to Vanguard, rolled over his Roth IRA, and eliminated his outstanding credit card debt. Impressive! We also developed and scheduled training for the others members of our command on the power of compound interest; in hopes of converting a few more people to our way of thinking. As Brad Barret and Jonathan Mendosa from ChooseFI Podcast love to say, “the FIRE is spreading”, and we’re doing our part.
Thus, there was no good reason for my anxiety to spike like it did Friday during the meeting. Sure, I was dealing with the typical bureaucratic B.S. that only the military can dream up. I’d stayed late at work the night prior waiting for a meeting that never took place. The meeting at which I “lost it” was early the next morning and not particularly well-planned or executed. In fact, it was a virtual replay of a meeting held six months prior, at which we all agreed on the need for the procedures to improve. So much for that agreement!
If monetary compensation and recognition for the civilians who work for me were not involved, I wouldn’t have given a shit. But it was, and I could see that one civilian in particular who works damn hard, and deserves a pay raise, was about to get the shaft. Queue me losing it.
Work and Mental Health
Here’s the thing though, if I can’t make it through what in reality was a low-stress week, I’m not going to make it three more years without more serious incidents. I refer to the type that might ultimately cost me my career and pension. If there is one thing I am sure of as well, should I choose to choke-out a self-entitled workmate, or dress down (i.e. yell at) an over-empowered civilian to the point where they feel threatened, then PTS or not, I’m done. Burnt toast done. My service would no more give me a second thought than it would someone who popped positive for drugs (we have a zero-tolerance drug use policy the U.S. military).
Fair enough, I can’t use my PTS as an excuse to behave inappropriately. I need to master my mental health problems, or they will master me. No one else is going to do it for me. Just like managing my money and investments, no one will look out for my best interests better than me.
I’ve written occasionally and almost at random about my PTS. That’s partly due to the fact that it’s an almost normal part of my life now. I don’t want to highlight it, nor do I wish to downplay it. I just want it to be. The other reason I’ve not specifically addressed my PTS is due to its lack of severity. I feel guilty almost every time I bring it up because I’ve served with people who suffer from the real deal Disorder, not just Post-Traumatic Stress from specific bad events, like me. Those with the Disorder will always suffer the reduced functionality, and as such, they’ll need help the rest of their lives. My workmates and I recently said goodbye to someone who suffers along those lines, and I can’t help but think about him routinely.
My doctors tell me that my type of PTS is recoverable though. Once I make right with all the horrible feelings these specific bad events triggered, my mixed anxiety-depressive disorder should subside. Turns out though, that is a lot harder than it sounds. As a result, I’m not there yet. It’s one of the reasons I took up writing and blogging.
You Won’t Like Me When I’m Angry
If you couldn’t tell, my main symptom is anger. I’m talking Incredible Hulk turn me green with anger. Which, if you ever met me in person, you’d probably find laughable. I find that analogy laughable too. Maybe a better comparison is more like Ben Stiller’s character in that superhero comedy movie which no one probably saw, and I can’t remember the name of. In any case, it’s fortunate that I don’t get superhero strength because before I sought help, it turned physical on rare occasion.
Luckily I never turned the physical manifestation of my anger against my family. Unless of course, you count me choking out one of my brothers at a family reunion in front of all of our kids as “against my family”. Yeah … I’m not too proud of that. We’ve since made up, or at least let bygones be bygones. However, it wasn’t quick and it wasn’t easy. Grumpus Minimi #1 (pronounced min-EE-my) still brings it up occasionally, because apparently stuff like that leaves an impression on a kid! Father and uncle of the decade right here folks.
Where was I before my digression into the fun that is an extended Maximus family get-together? Oh yeah, PTS, depression, anxiety, and anger brought on by the fun that is an 18-year career in a military that’s waged war continuously for 16 of those years. Anyone catch the cover article from Time magazine this week? It doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the American military at the moment. I don’t dispute the statistics they cite regarding suicide or other problems. It rings true to me. News flash though, the “new way of war” it purports to reveal, and the stress that method of war places on certain specialties, isn’t anything new. At least not in the last 16 years. Nice to know that a decade-and-a-half-long trend constitutes “new” in the eyes of Time. I’ll stick to The Economist thank you very much.
Reality Strikes Back
After I regained my composure at the meeting in which I kind of, sort of, lost my shit, I came to the realization that while I like and care about the people I work with, I love my family more. A lot more. Not only that, but my family is 100% dependent on me. The service, on the other hand, will grind its grist regardless of my presence. The bureaucracy cares not for me, nor my family.
Which isn’t to say I’ve given up on doing what’s right. It’s just to say I can only afford to fight the machine so hard these days. I can’t afford the mental energy it takes to tilt windmills and expect my family to tolerate getting what’s left over. Once I hang up my uniform, my family will still be there. The service won’t (except for that twice a month pension check!). I’ve given my service enough of my sanity; I’m not willing to give it anymore. Thus, I certainly can’t afford to choke anyone out, or even make them cry, as much as I might want to.
Keep Your Eye on the Prize, Grumpus
The bottom line is that I don’t hate my job, but for a number of reasons I’m ready to move on. Unfortunately, I’m about three years too early. The Golden Albatross that is my pension with its benefits dictates the timeline. That won’t change. Thus, if I can’t change the timeline, I need to change myself. My professionalism will motivate me to get out of bed and continue to put forth the required effort. In fact, if left unchecked I would put forth too much effort, leaving too little left for the family, or myself.
For much of the year, I struck the appropriate balance. I was biking to and from work, and was home well-before dinner with enough time to play with the kids, bathe them, and put them to bed. I even had plenty of time left over for the wife. Recently though, work started to eat up more time, and of course so did the blog. Fortunately, the end of the year is coming up. That’s probably as good of a time as any to take stock and re-evaluate work life balance.
Since I started my post with a Twenty One Pilots quote from their song Migrain, I’ll end it one too. It’s a brilliant song set to their unique pop-synth-alternative sound about the lead singer’s mental health struggles. It possess many identifiable themes for a guy like me including: the need to project a calm exterior while an emotional war rages internally; the shock of how violent some of those emotions can be; and the need to master them. About the only thing I can’t identify with are his thoughts of suicide, which fortunately I’ve never experienced. With that said, the lead singer remains determined to master his demons, which he calls lions:
They’re trying to eat me, blood running down their chin, and I know that I can fight, or I can let the lion win. I begin to assemble what weapons I can find, ’cause sometimes to stay alive you gotta kill your mind.
— Twenty-One Pilots, Migraine
I feel much the same about my dragon, and its time to pick up my shield and sword to slay it again. While the Golden Albatross’ weighs heavy some days, getting in the way of my fight with the dragon, it will be gone soon enough. The prize of FI lies on the other side in less than three years. I can reach it without sacrificing my mind or my family. I know I can … and if I can do it, anyone can.