“A Dark Place”

by James Meyer

I didn’t just wake up one day and want to kill myself. It’s been a journey, like so many I’ve been on. I don’t know when, where, or why it started. I don’t know where it’s going or how it will end. My life’s goal wasn’t to end up depressed and suicidal. I didn’t set out to want to drink myself to death every time I picked up a glass. But somehow that’s where I ended up. There were signposts along the way, but I missed them.

When I was younger, I didn’t understand how someone could kill themselves. I understand now. At some point there was a shift in my being. I don’t know when it happened or if I was predisposed to it. But there was a shift, and at some point, I knew I could take my own life. And, scarier, I was okay with the thought.

I was away from home 300 days most years with my part-time job. I was a flight engineer on the C-130 and later the C-5 in the USAF Reserves. I’ve deployed twelve times in support of some conflict somewhere. Sometimes living in a glorified cardboard box held together with black mold. One year I deployed three times, twice to places I’ve never heard of, places I’d have trouble finding on a map.

It was after deployment number five that I started to drink again. My mom died while I was in Afghanistan and I went back to the bottle — hard. I had a lot of catching up to do. I had been sober for almost thirty years. I went to my first AA meeting at sixteen. I knew then that I was powerless over alcohol and my life was unmanageable.

It was an easy road back to heavy drinking, downhill all the way. Almost everyone on flying status drinks, some more than others. The saying goes if you don’t know who that one is, it’s probably you. I always knew I was that one.

Even when I wasn’t deployed I was away from home so much it felt like being deployed. The stateside missions were the worst in many ways. Medevacs or Human Remains missions that start at Andrews Air Force Base. A C-17 would bring the bodies to Andrews from the Middle East via Ramstein, Germany. Bodies in pieces, literally and figuratively.

The HR missions were tough. I lost count of how many I’ve been on. Taxi the plane into position. Shut down everything. Silence. No power cart. Nothing. The Honor Guard walks up the ramp in the back of the plane. They pick up the American flag-draped casket and walk slowly off the plane to a waiting hearse. The quiet is broken by “Taps” filling the tarmac. The flag is folded and presented to the spouse or parent. We might spend the night, or continue to our next destination. The plane always had more than one passenger; most were still breathing. Fly a few more hours, drop off an injured troop for specialized care. It was depressing.

Medevac missions were a mixed bag for me. The good part was that we traveled with a medical team for two weeks at a time. Usually attractive females. The downside was that I was looking at some pretty banged-up bodies. Missing limbs and bandaged faces as if from a 1950s horror movie. I got to reflect on how banged up and bruised I was. On the inside, I was getting worse every time I walked out to the airplane to start my preflight.

After the engines were shut down for the day and the plane was put to bed we broke out “Little Buddy.” A red and white Coleman cooler that contained a temporary cure for many. For some, it was a beer, for others whiskey. Me, it was Cruzan Rum. I discovered Cruzan on the island of St. Croix. They have a drink called the Cruzan Confession, about five shots of different rums and pineapple juice. I’d get two. My personal paradise, both the island and the drink.

The first six months back on the bottle were fun. I hadn’t drank for a long time and I had some catching up to do. It took three years of rock-star, aircrew lifestyle to get caught up. Without realizing it I was back to the bottom of the drinking game. Towards the end, I just wanted to get so drunk and high that I wouldn’t wake. I was mixing Tylenol #3’s and rum to help me get there. Most of the time I just passed out. Sometimes I’d wake up in vomit. I got to this place and hadn’t even realized it.

No one knew what was really going on with me. Usually, I would stay in my hotel room and drink alone. I wanted to keep flying, so each morning I’d put on my happy face. Most mornings I woke with guilt, remorse, and shame. But mainly I woke up angry. Angry that I woke up at all.  A flight engineer buddy of mine drank too much one night and never woke up. At one point I thought he had it all. Great civilian flying job, hot wife, and a nice house. I envied him when we first met. Later I envied him for not waking up. I thought he was one of the lucky ones. I didn’t have a logical reason for feeling this way. I didn’t see or do anything different than my peers. I certainly didn’t want my life to be like this.

I was out of control, acting out in all areas of my life, screaming for help. But no one heard. Many of the guys around me were screaming too. Aircrew, in general, are a balls-to-the-wall group when it comes to drinking. We are away from family even when we’re not deployed. The life isn’t for everyone, but it suited me because it kept me moving, running. But it finally got to the point where I could no longer run from myself. I couldn’t get away from my thoughts or emotions any longer. I had hit bottom and just wanted it to end. I had to get off the ride. I got busted for acting inappropriately while in a blackout.

I used that event to get off the roller coaster. I went to a Veterans Administration alcohol rehab program. The VA diagnosed me with anxiety, chemical dependency, depression, PTSD, and suicidal tendencies. My commanders thought I was just trying to get out of trouble. They wanted to make an example of me. I didn’t care what they did, kick me out, send me to jail, it was a way out. I didn’t have to run any longer. I didn’t want to run any longer. I didn’t care how it would affect my military career. I just wanted to get off the elevator before it hit the bottom floor, exploding with me and whoever I might take with me.

I quit drinking and sought help. After about a year of treatment and recovery, I was able to stay in the military and fly again. I eventually got kicked out for my VA diagnosis, but it took a few years. For a while, I was able to keep my shit in check and still perform. There came a time when I just couldn’t any longer. I didn’t go back to alcohol, but the anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts slowly crept back in. I had to get back on medication and a more intensive treatment plan.

The other side of the medication was that I was fearful and anxious every time I had to fly. Most flyers are cocky and arrogant. Not me, I was scared shitless towards the end of my flying career. I was spending too much time thinking of the what if’s instead of enjoying the job.

Ultimately, I was kicked out of the USAF Reserves for not being medically qualified to do my job. Unlike on active duty, in the reserves there is no medical discharge in this situation. I had over twenty years, so I would get a retirement check, just not as large as I was hoping for. It was a relief on some level when I found out I was disqualified from flying. I had a new fear though, what was I going to do for a J-O-B.

My life was turned upside down. I had a VA disability rating already, so I got in touch with Vocational Rehab. They thought it might be a good idea to go back to school. I took an aptitude test and scored high in web development. Little did they know that I have a Master of Fine Arts degree and taught web development and graphics classes fifteen years prior. I found a two-year school with a great program. After twenty-plus years of unsuccessfully trying to get my associate’s degree from the Community College of the Air Force, I finally got an associate’s degree.

I’ve been out of the military for about five years now. I have the paperwork in hand to prove I served my country. Signed by a president I served under. I got an Associate of Applied Science in digital technology courtesy of the VA.  After two years as an unemployed student, I have a job. I work for a state university as an entry-level web developer. The pay is just okay, but the environment makes up for it. Many days I have trouble getting both my mind and body to show up together. My manager is very flexible with my issues and willing to work with me. I doubt I’d find that elsewhere.

There are still some dark days. Nothing like they were. There are still road signs. For the most part not nearly as ominous. They’re getting easier to read. Some days I can see the tunnel before I’m in it. I can’t always avoid it though. I don’t isolate like I use to. I have tools I can use, friends I can call. Friends who call me if they don’t hear from me. Somedays it seems I don’t have choice; I find myself in the dark. But I’m not there for long. I still have suicidal thoughts. I’m depressed many days. I have anxiety at the oddest of times. But I’m not living in that lonely, dark place today.