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A Puzzle Called "Me"

(U.S. Air Force graphic by Senior Airman Shane Mitchell)

(U.S. Air Force graphic by Senior Airman Shane Mitchell)

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- It was early October when I entered the waiting room, and I wasn't in the best of moods. The past two months had been the worst of my life; I made some very poor decisions and my personal, financial and professional stress was unmanageable. I put myself between a rock and an even bigger rock; a "hard place" would have been a relief.

Hell, at one point, I even considered suicide.

It's been many years since I've shown my emotions to anyone. I tend to keep them locked or intellectualized away; it's much easier to view them logically and dismiss them than experience them for what they are.

At this point in my life, I only remember feeling a few distinct emotions: anger, despair, apathy and anxiety. "Relief" and "hope" ceased to exist for me, almost vacating my vocabulary entirely.

Kitchen advice from the cooking show on the waiting room TV droned on and melted with the rest of the background noise. My eyes wandered around the room, from faces of other people waiting, to the TV teaching me how to make custard, to the clock slowly ticking down until my appointment. Every second seemed to linger as I waited.

Tick.

Tick.

Tick.

I didn't care. This is called "apathy."

"Senior Airman Mitchell?"

I shifted my gaze from the clock to the owner of the voice calling my name.

"Are you ready?"

No. Yes. Should I be? I didn't know.

As I stood up, I noticed a few people watching me. I imagined what was going through their heads.

"I wonder what he's here for."

"That guy must be 'broken.'"

The judgments I conjured echoed in my head as the "voice" led me down a hall and into a cozy office that would occupy the next few hours of my life.

I sat on a couch, leaned forward and stared at the floor.

"What now?" I thought. "What happens next?"

I wanted to be here, but I didn't want to be here. This is called "anxiety."

The "voice" sat across from me and went over the list of problems that led me here. Between a night of poor decisions, the possibility of my military career ending, and discovering I might be a father after a night with a friend, the "list" started to sound more like a bad reality TV show, and I was the main character.

"That sounds about right," I confirmed.

My gaze didn't meet hers for more than a second or two. Finding patterns in the carpet was more bearable than looking anyone in the eyes.

Several long, arduous seconds of silence passed.

Tick.

Tick.

Tick.

She spoke again.

"That's a lot. How are you dealing with it?"

I began to recount everything that happened in the past few months. I told her my stories and concerns; I told her what led me here and what went wrong. And as I spoke, the gravity of my situation hit me hard, like an ocean wave hell-bent on making it over a beach of jagged rocks. This wasn't a bad reality TV show I could just turn off.  This was reality - my reality.

I became frustrated at times and confused at others. A plethora of emotions started zipping through my brain and dissipating almost instantaneously, like bugs being zapped by the alluring blue light. My heart rate increased. My mind was reminding me over and over again of the choices I made.

I began to loathe myself. This is called "anger."

The woman across from me sat patiently and listened empathetically. And when I was done with my story, she looked calmly at me and asked: "what do you hope to get out of this?"

I didn't know. I half-expected to have her tell me what I needed. After all, I'm in the Air Force; someone telling me what to do is what I'd become accustomed to. My life was in shambles and it felt like there was no shelter from the storm I created - like no matter what I tried to do, I'd spend the next several years of my life taking two steps forward and three steps back.

I felt powerless.

I felt defeated. This is called "despair."

"I don't know," I replied. "I know I have some emotional things to deal with, but I don't know what they are, exactly."

"I want you to know that I work for you," she told me. "I'm not going to tell you what you need, but I'm going to help you get what you decide you need for yourself. And if it isn't working for you, tell me."

She listened. She didn't judge me.

Neither did my coworkers, or my friends and family.

Or the people in the waiting room.

It started to occur to me that the judgment I was expecting was imagined. They weren't judging me - I was.

Tick.

Tick.

Tick.

For the first time in a long time, I felt at ease. I felt calm, even if for just a moment. This is called "relief."

That's the day I discovered what counseling at the Mountain Home AFB Mental Health clinic was really like.

Since then, I've found some focus. I've begun to identify what barriers, difficulties and issues I need to work out. The past few months have given me a piece of clarity in the puzzle called "me."

That puzzle would still be in a box on the shelf if I hadn't walked through the door and confronted the fears that made every step difficult to take.

Every session is a chance for me to explore and learn things about myself - on both a basic and "deeper" level. Every time I sit in that familiar sofa in a small, cozy room, I can vent my frustrations, ask questions and gain insight from somebody who cares mostly about where I go from this point in my life.

It took a life-changing chain of events for me to realize I needed help, and a of lot humility - something I struggle with - to ask for it. But I'm glad I did.

I'm learning that life isn't about absolutes, and the "grey areas" are what make it worth living. I'm learning to be comfortable with the things I like about myself, and I'm trying to change the things I don't.

The stage is set, and the past was merely act one. Every act that follows has yet to be written.
What's important is today. And today, I get to keep trying to put the pieces of that puzzle in place.

Tick.

And take life...

Tick.

one second...

Tick.

at a time...

Tock.

This is called "hope."