The author found happiness by working on himself to overcome struggles with anxiety and depression.
By Bill Edson
My Post Traumatic Stress Disorder story is not unlike many others. I am a combat veteran, and during my tour serving in Iraq in 2005-2006, I was exposed to the worst that humanity can dish out. Horrifying death and violent oppression, indiscriminate destruction, and acts of violence while enduring the constant threat of attack and dealing with personal feelings of emptiness and loneliness.
That is not to say that I did not embrace my responsibilities as the task force senior medic of the brigade combat team. I loved the job and the responsibilities that came with it. I will almost always state that it was the best job that I ever had. It was a remarkable duty assignment, and I don’t regret having served my country during such a difficult mission.
Like many others, I did not come through my service without lasting personal effect. Initially, I thought I dodged the PTSD bullet. I felt like I had deflected the trauma effectively and was going to be okay going forward. The first sign that something wasn’t right was the moment we arrived home. I expected to feel a sense of happiness, triumphant, and victorious, much like you would see in the old films of war heroes coming back after World War II.
I didn’t feel any of that. I was happy to be home and with my family again, but there was no joy. I walked off the plane into a world of trepidation and transitional insecurities.
It wasn’t long before I began to experience all the classic symptoms when suffering from the invisible wounds of PTSD: disconnection, isolation, insomnia, anger, hypervigilance, dreams, flashbacks, and later, depression and anxiety. I did seek out and receive some excellent mental health counseling. It helped me discover and apply practical cognitive coping skills that would keep me functional within the realm of my family and society. I was still silently suffering.
The enemy from the battlefield in Iraq had followed me home and continued the attacks on me in the forms of chronic depression and anxiety. (I still, to this day, refer to my depression and anxiety as “my enemy.”) Those issues began to cascade themselves in other debilitating ways and dramatically affected my overall well-being.
Once active and vibrant, I became reserved and sedentary. This all perpetuated itself into more significant issues and struggles with my physical health.
It had been 11 years since my return from war, and I finally came to realize I was sitting around doing nothing and expecting this misery to end on its own was not going to work.
Instead of looking at the fact I needed to lose weight to better my health or find treatment for my depression and anxiety, I realized it had to be more than a reactive response to my physical symptoms.
What if my weight gain, and subsequent health and mental health issues, were not the problematic focus, but instead, it was a part of a more significant problem? I decided to look past my apparent poor health and reflect upon my life’s wellness. By focusing on the symptoms that I was experiencing, I was missing my overall wellness. I began to break it down in this way.
I was a little uncomfortable with this type of macro-dissection, but it was finally time to do something. I was getting sick and tired of being sick and tired, so I began to take a good long hard, truthful look at myself to discover real self-improvement. Because with self-improvement will come self-empowerment.
I needed to know what was broken so I could fix it. It may be a complicated process to admit our brokenness, but it is necessary to cope, to heal, to strengthen, and to overcome our challenges.
The other key component for me to act was my realization that this crap was not going away anytime soon, if ever. Just hoping it would dissipate or disappear was not realistic. Like anything else, real transformation requires real change.
The key is to genuinely self-reflect and take a hard and honest look and discern where you stand within your wholeness. If you are not willing to be completely honest when it comes to yourself, then you are not willing to do the hard work it will take to improve. You will remain stagnant within your affliction.
So, in my case, after honestly reflecting upon my five wellness categories, this is what I realized: My marriage was stable and secure, but the level of our intimacy and open communication had diminished substantially. We were more like roommates who loved each other rather than life-mates in love. I virtually had no friends or social life. My children and their spouses were my networks of friends, and my “real” friends were few and far between. None of them were local. You may have some support in those distant connections, but you remain isolated, so nothing changes.
Physically, I was a mess. I had gained 80 pounds on this 10-year roller coaster of dieting and binge-eating that found me in a state of physical disarray and sedentary dysfunction. I had arrived home with some physical challenges because of serving in combat within very austere and toxic conditions. Still, it was my PTSD that exacerbated the physical problems into serious health issues. Beyond my obesity, I had high blood pressure, obstructive sleep apnea, hip and back pain, and significant swelling of my feet and ankles and hands.
These ailments were easy to diagnose. They were not invisible, and treatment was available. Taking medicine and physical therapy helped me feel better. The key is to feel. With PTSD, the real cure is mental. The invisible wounds that you can’t see. The pain in your mind that prevents you from controlling negative thoughts.
At 53 years old, I had become a fat old man sitting in my chair watching television and eating my life away.
My emotional state was in lock-step with my physical state. I was oppressed by bouts of depression and anxiety, and that affected my moods and my happiness. I was living in a state of emotional malaise and was not living a life that felt meaningful or satisfying. My declining health and body image impacted my self-esteem, and my energy levels and self-motivation remained flat. I was unhappy most of the time.
I was in a suitable place employment wise. It was not perfect, but solid. My wife and I had good jobs, and our combined-income allowed us to sustain a comfortable quality of life. I was a functional employee producing a good income. The work environment was challenging. While this did diminish from my overall wellness, I was satisfied I could provide my wife with a comfortable lifestyle that she so much deserved.
My spiritual self was causing me the most turbulence. I discovered my spirit is the real foundation of my overall wellness. I am a very spiritual person and have a healthy Christian faith belief system that has always propped me up during times of personal challenge and duress. As it had turned out, the progression of my traumatic combat experiences had dissected my faith to the point of disconnection. This disconnect had lasted for nearly 11 years despite many efforts to regain it within a church-based support system in which I had once spiritually thrived.
When taking this 30,000-foot view of my entire wholeness, my deficiencies were apparent.
I think it also became quite evident that my issues were not merely five separate issues but connected categories that influenced and impacted one another. A deficit deficiency in one area led to a ripple-effect breakdown of my overall wellness. Conversely, a reverse positive effect would see a corrective action in one category to create subsequent healing and resolution within the other types, thus empowering restorative personal wholeness.
But let me say loud and clear: Initially, this process was not easy, it was not fun, and it was not fast. It took devotion, resolve, and self-discipline. It required goals and a realistic vision that drove results. It took patience and a warrior spirit to fight against my “enemy.” It took an open mind to understand that victory comes in small daily wins, and it is the accumulation of those small wins that equate a transformed life.
Having a new perspective, plan, and an optimistic attitude is critical. For me, it started with my family and my spiritual self. My family held me accountable to my commitment, and my spiritual wellness was the essential missing element that restored my courage to win this battle. Miraculously, a new church had opened just minutes from our home, and it provided the loving atmosphere that helped me renew my Christian faith. That restoration gave me a sense of hope and personal value that motivated me to begin a fitness and healthy eating program, it encouraged me to reaffirm our marriage, and it provided me the desire and purpose to be social again. I found myself having a more confident mindset that had me doubting less and seeing things in a more positive light. Emotionally, I became stronger and could now push back against the intrusiveness of my depression and anxiety. I now had a weapon to fight my enemy. That weapon was me.
In the first seven months of this process, an incredible personal transformation occurred. I now run three to five miles a day, at least five days per week. I have lost 70 pounds and have restored my health. I feed my soul with things that I love, and I am devoted to daily self-reflection and prayer. My wife and I have improved our relationship and enjoy doing things together again. The new church has introduced some budding friendships, and an outlet to share my experiences by leading a fellowship group with new and renewed believers.
I have a much-improved situation. But I still struggle with my anxiety and depression. The most significant difference is that I am strong enough now to push back against those challenges. To lean into them and use them as motivation against themselves. I know that I can overcome those challenges, and with that knowledge and confidence, I am now winning, and that empowers me even more.
I discovered combining wholeness and wellness leads to happiness.