Philosophy is perfectly right in saying that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other clause—that it must be lived forward. The more one thinks through this clause, the more one concludes that life in temporality never becomes properly understandable, simply because never at any time does one get perfect repose to take a stance—backward. - Søren Kierkegaard
Given the complexities of a life, all the roads taken and not taken, it can be impossible to see cause. There are obvious well-marked events that define a life. Meeting your significant other and eventually having children is one such event. How easily could you have not met this person? The effects of that are large and obvious.
How does one begin to find the cause of a life-shattering problem that has no obvious beginning point? Is it even possible? With many things finding the ‘why’ or ‘how’ is the first step in solving the problem. An arson investigator needs to know how a fire was started if there is any hope of getting to the bottom of it. As a programmer, I cannot solve the problem at hand, at least not in a decent manner, if I don’t understand the problem and the background of it.
Everyone feels down from time to time. It is a defining trait of being human. Some get it much worse than others, and it seems random in the sense that it might not be based in anything going on or proportional to the issues. If one has no mental health problems, an acute episode of depression or anxiety can still happen. I had an enjoyable childhood and other than self-esteem and confidence issues, it was pretty unremarkable. My biggest issue as a child was the feeling that I didn’t belong here; I had that as long as I can remember. As an adult, with one or two exceptions, mental health problems came and went (or never left) with no external stressor. I went through lots of stressful times like everyone and even had a few downright scary things and none of those events correlated with downturns in my mental health.
Before I started having significant and chronic mental health issues, I was no different. The first time I ever felt so down it seemed that something was ripped out of me was when I was 18 and in the Army. The Army is not a kind environment, at least not in a combat arms unit. I did well and got promoted quickly. I don’t even know why or how it happened. Maybe I was still adjusting to being away from home and being in a radically different environment. It almost ended badly, at the end of a rope on a random Saturday afternoon. Luckily, no one knew and I pushed through it and completed my enlistment without problems of any kind.
After getting out, my life simplified and got really lonely. This was my second bout of suicidal ideation, but never got to the planning stages. It was also the first time that it stuck around for more than a few days. This lasted about a month. At least here I can point to a real cause.
I am grateful that I don’t suffer loneliness anymore. I love solitude and making friends seems out of reach. I simply have zero desire for it. I enjoy seeing family, so I am okay with a lack of social life. Over the years I have had many shrinks and therapists and the consensus is that it doesn’t matter and isn’t particularly unhealthy.
About two years after getting out of the Army I got married and had a beautiful daughter. Times were tight and I needed to get a career. I went to a community college and didn’t do as well as I would have liked and was having second thoughts about the program I was in. My mind drifted back to the military as a possibility. I really didn’t want to go back to the Army. An Army base would be a terrible place to raise a family. I knew the Air Force was much more family friendly but I had the impression that promotions came slowly. I became accustomed to quick promotions in the Army so I tossed that out. I eventually settled on the Coast Guard, even though I had to take a demotion. It was completely different than the Army. In some ways it was nicer and easier and other ways it was much more challenging.
Things were really good. Right after an easy boot camp, I chose to go to a search and rescue station on the coast of Washington State. Family life was good; we had our second daughter about a year and a half into my enlistment. Promotions came as quickly as I was willing to work for them, when I left my first duty station I was an E-5. Smooth sailing until a fateful day. I had a really weird thing happen to me during my time at the search and rescue station. Out of the blue I blacked out, but did not fall, and in came extreme feelings of terror and I could see images of scenes from dreams. It affected me all day, I was in a fog. I had no idea what it was. It was pretty early so I chalked it up to being tired and foolishly didn’t follow up. I was fine the next day so I didn’t think of it again. It happened again, about 8 months later. Luckily, I was home and again it was early in the morning. I just brushed it off.
About 15 months later, I was assigned to a patrol boat in Key West. I had only been on the boat 4 months and it was a busy and stressful time. We picked up thousands of Cubans from rickety rafts. This was 1994, it was a massive effort from so many CG and Naval ships to keep up with the migration. I think the total count was 30,000 people picked up from the entire task force. When that died down we got diverted to Haiti for Operation Uphold Democracy. Between all of that plus normal fishery and drug interdiction patrols, and I spent a week in training in Yorktown; it was a busy time. On January 3rd 1995 we were scheduled for a month of dock-side maintenance which is hard work but at least we weren’t getting pulled all over the place. The morning of the first day of maintenance I had another one of those weird things and it was significantly stronger than the previous ones. It knocked me on my butt, literally and figuratively, but again I didn’t seek help. I just faked my way through until the end of the day.
At the end of the day, I had another one just as strong during formation. I remember being really wobbly. I lived about a 45 second drive off the base so I made it home easily. I remember walking in and seeing my girls eating and rushing to the couch feeling terrified. I had another blackout, and another, they were coming quickly with very little time between them. Next thing I remember is waking in the ER and hearing two doctors discussing how to fix my shoulder. It turns out I had a grand mal seizure, separated my shoulder and tore my rotator cuff. The shoulder was from the fall off the couch. I tore my rotator cuff because it made me horribly paranoid and was swinging at the paramedics with both arms. This event was a turning point. Everything bad that has happened to me since can be traced here. There is not one injury from that incident that doesn’t still cause me trouble. In fact, it has led to lots of issues, physical and otherwise.
It turns out the weird things I was having before the grand mal was a complex partial seizure, sometimes called an aura. I spent eight days in the hospital, four of which in the ICU because the seizure stopped my heart and I had an irregular beat for a few days. I don’t remember a lot from this time period.
I have learned to be able to tell if a dream will cause a seizure and I avoid thinking about them. Most of them I forget when I wake, but once it causes an aura it is seared into my brain. The auras are a blessing in disguise. I haven’t had another grand mal since because they are warning signals and I have hours to get seen and get it stopped.
This ended my military career, although it took 18 months to get through the medical board. I took advantage of that and all the medical leave and light duty in the Group Key West medical bay to actually enjoy the Keys. I had surgeries and physical therapy to deal with but other than that things were pretty good. During this recovery time I started getting terrible tension and migraine headaches and still get them to this day. I started feeling down, enough that the corpsman I worked with noticed and I had my first appointment with a shrink and my introduction to the joys of psych meds.
Little did I know that it would not be the seizure that would alter my life the most in negative ways. If anything the epilepsy was responsible for me getting a free education, at least my bachelor degree. Epilepsy was the only basis for the medical discharge, but the VA also service-connected the depression, bad shoulder and headaches which gave me a high enough rating to qualify for vocational rehab which is a great program that offers a free education.