It was 2009 and I was a member of an Army Special Mission Unit. I had spent the last eight years at war. From Afghanistan to Iraq to the Horn of Africa, I had taken part in nearly 600 combat operations.
My life was filled with purpose, with meaning, with adventure. I was constantly challenged and able to overcome those challenges. Years of warfare at the highest level had given me a feeling of invincibility, like I was the best of the best and that I could do anything I wanted anytime I wanted.
I lived for the next deployment.
But then, as quickly as it had all started, it stopped. I made an error in judgement while on my last deployment and was asked to leave the organization.
A life turned upside down
A year later, in 2010, I was lost. I didn’t know who I was, why nothing satisfied me, why I was in pain, why I wasn’t sleeping, why all I wanted to do was tear myself down, why I felt utterly useless after so many years of success.
I was newly divorced and surgery had left me addicted to prescription pain pills. I took sleeping pills for insomnia and I drank nearly every day to chase away the pain and demons that lived inside me.
That’s when I hit rock bottom, pushing away almost everyone in my life to distance myself. And I felt like I didn’t or shouldn’t matter to anyone, like my time was over, and the best thing for me to do was to go away forever.
The choice to live
Thankfully, that day I made a choice: a choice to not give up, a choice to live.
Giving up would have been the easy way out, and I had never taken the easy route. While it may have taken away my pain, it would cause pain for my family. So, through the encouragement of others, I reached out to a doctor for help figuring out a path forward.
After many visits, tests and back-and-forth communication, I was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress, insomnia and depression. The doctor educated me on my condition and linked my feelings and behaviors to those injuries.
This diagnosis had a profound impact on my mental health, or rather, my understanding of my mental health. I realized that while my injuries were not my fault, my actions and my recovery were absolutely my responsibility.
The hard work of healing
Everything I had accomplished in my military career came from hard work and this would be no different. The next few years would prove to be a challenge like none I had faced. I was attending regular counseling and medical appointments. I focused on getting back in shape and stopped taking the pain meds.
Things were slowly improving.
I was prescribed medication to help with my mental health issues. Given my history with prescription drugs, I reluctantly accepted – and was surprised by the results. I felt better – my highs and lows seemed to level out, and this helped me to become more focused.
Things were looking up when the unthinkable happened. When renewing my prescription, the pharmacy made an error and quadrupled my prescribed dose. Within days I was spiraling out of control and afraid of the thoughts I was having.
In a panic, I reached out to my doctor who asked me to check the label on my pill bottle.
During the weeks that followed, I was slowly weaned off the medication and visited a counselor regularly. The mistake was unfortunate, but it did give me some clarity. I would no longer rely on someone or something to be responsible for my well-being.
Always be working on you
I knew that I would have to double down on my own efforts to heal myself and to better understand my issues. The solutions I would seek would be tangible life changes, not quick fixes.
In 2015, I retired from service. Life today isn’t perfect. But, through working with my counselor, Veteran groups, my spouse and a lot of introspection, I have the tools I need to overcome challenges.
There are so many resources and organizations for struggling Veterans. The first step is finding the courage to seek help.
Here’s the bottom line: Always be working on you, keep pushing forward and remind yourself every day that you can and will get better.
Find ways to help a Veteran in crisis and prevent Veteran suicide at BeThereForVeterans.com. If you’re going through a tough time and need support, the Veterans Crisis Line is available anytime, day or night.
You can even call if you’re concerned about a fellow Veteran. Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or text 838255.
Chris VanSant spent more than 20 years in the Army and served as an operator in the Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta with nearly 600 combat operations, including the capture of Saddam Hussein. After his career ended, he dealt with the effects of PTSD, TBI, and a dependence on pain medication after a neck injury. He has recovered and is now COO of a company which manufactures body armor and tactical equipment for the military and law enforcement. He is a board member for the All Secure Foundation, which assists special operations active-duty and combat Veterans and their families in recovery of posttraumatic stress.