When the storms of life arise, how do you survive the onslaught?

Hope Ahead (Courtesy graphic)

Hope Ahead. (Courtesy graphic)

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- The storms of life appear in many forms. Some are small and arise as unexpected showers to rain on your parade, while others last so long they leave you exhausted -- mentally, physically, emotionally or even spiritually.

Small storms can make their metaphoric appearance in the form of a bad day at work, annoying car troubles, locking yourself out of your house, or the many everyday challenges of parenting young children. Sometimes, these small storms linger overhead longer than anticipated and test your resolve and patience. Worse yet and unbeknownst to you, your car becomes home to a group of mice that make a nest in your glove compartment, perish, and leave their malodorous essence behind no matter how much you clean, scrub, sanitize and deodorize. Compound those challenges with the necessity to work a very demanding job, and those small storms can make it seem like the sun will never shine again.

Larger storms, however, have a far deeper and long-lasting impact. They linger over you for weeks, months, or even years and can be so overwhelming that you feel you may not survive the onslaught: a wife’s post-partum depression; a hurricane destroying your home and your possessions; a suffocating cancer diagnosis, or even a cataclysmic event like the death of a child.

Depending on the circumstances, dealing with any one of those storms – large or small – can seem like a monumental hurdle. Dealing with all of them one after another is enough to scare you right off the track.

This is my story of how I’ve jumped, many times blindly crashing, through each and every heartbreaking hurdle (including the mice) and found a way to get back on track.

I thought I was resilient. I’d gone through countless training sessions about the importance of resilience. I thought I could handle anything. I had already overcome other obstacles in my life, including an emotionally-challenging childhood, attending ten schools prior to graduating high school, a chronic auto-immune disease with serious digestive side effects that was misdiagnosed for three years, marital hardships, deployments and constant relocations that come with military service.

I didn’t have much confidence as a young man, but in 2001, the Air Force, my newfound faith, and the love of a good woman changed my life. I thrived, and after 15 years in the Air Force I still had that same beautiful wife by my side and a rapidly-growing family. I was six months into my dream job as the Commandant of an Airman Leadership School. I was widely respected as a leader in my church and served as the children’s ministries pastor. I thought I had all four pillars of Comprehensive Airman Fitness covered.

None of those things, past or present – NONE – prepared me for what was about to happen.

In June 2016, my son Marshall was born via emergency cesarean section. Just a few hours after he came into the world, he passed away. I occasionally flash back to that day, picturing myself mentally locked in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, helplessly watching his tiny legs convulse from seizures, desperately wishing he could reflexively grasp my finger the way my other children had, and dreading the decision I was ultimately forced to make.

After the death of my son, I hid from myself. Right or wrong, I blamed myself for what had happened and struggled with depression. I started to question the paths I had previously chosen and began to ignore my God-given gifts and passions. Despite my demeanor, my leadership team took care of and looked out for me. They asked all the right questions and I knew they cared. I was returned to my former career field and asked to help stand up a new squadron as part of a massive wing re-organization. I was excited about the opportunities, but at this juncture I still hadn’t fully dealt with my pain. And sadly, there was so much more coming.

Shortly after starting the new job, we evacuated to avoid the brunt of Hurricane Matthew. A couple months later we found out that my wife was pregnant again, leading to seven months of sheer terror for both of us, because we still hadn’t gotten a good answer on what went wrong and caused Marshall’s death. Three months before the baby was due, I found a mass on my left cheek. After having it removed, I was told I had a form of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – a cancer.

Around the same time, I received an assignment that would have moved us closer than we had ever been to family and it was a tremendous career opportunity. We were thrilled! But our excitement was short-lived. The assignment was canceled due to the cancer and the treatment I would need. I tried to smile and carry on, but inside I was a wreck, and I doubt I hid it very well.

Thankfully and by the grace of God, my wife gave birth to a beautiful baby girl without complications. Just two days later, she was rapidly released from the hospital because Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida and they had to shut down. Here we were again -- forced to evacuate our home due to a Category 3 storm.

We made the best of the situation, just happy to have our little girl after everything we went through with my son, but returned to a flooded house, rank with the smell of mold, and thousands of dollars in personal property damage which was not covered by insurance. We were told our home wouldn’t be repaired for at least 12 weeks. Now a family of seven, we gratefully took up residence in a two-bedroom temporary lodging facility until we found a new home. We tried to keep perspective on our situation by recognizing that one of our lodging neighbors was a recruiter with his large family from Puerto Rico.

I got a second opinion on the cancer, and ended up hopeful, yet frustrated. They walked back the diagnosis of lymphoma, calling it ‘suspicious’ and suggested it was an ‘evolving’ lymphoma. It certainly wasn’t normal and they didn’t know what to call it. The updated diagnosis didn’t bring the assignment back that got canceled, however. Every day I walked a fine line, hoping to contain the anger, hide the depression, and push back the fear that was growing. Then I found another mass in my neck.

As the tsunami of despair built around me and my pillars crumbled, I slipped into the mentality that I was a victim of bad circumstances. I let myself believe I couldn't be who I wanted to be because of the things that were happening outside of my control. I just wanted to feel better, so I began to self-medicate with lots of sugar, sex, video games, and Amazon Prime’s free two-day shipping.

Instead of simply passing over, the storms became more numerous and impactful on my life. Each new storm took on an outsized effect as it joined in with the greater tempest. The anxiety and stress of all these events kicked my digestive disorder into overdrive. In the midst of these storms, I sought help privately through the base Mental Health clinic, attended various support groups in the local community, and even asked if I could go to an in-patient clinic to help resolve my anxiety and resulting behavioral issues. I desperately wanted someone to fix me so I could get back to being the man I used to be.

I found myself waiting for two things: a biopsy of the new mass with hopefully clearer results on my “evolving” lymphoma, and results from a medical malpractice investigation into the cause of my son’s death. I thought if only they could rule out the cancer and I had someone else to blame, then I could go back to work and be normal again.

My catalyst to recovery was a simple question asked by one of my doctors at the base Mental Health clinic. I was asked, “What if the results you’re waiting for don't come back the way you want?” Pretty heady stuff to ponder. Then I realized they didn't matter. I wouldn't expect myself to be any different. If I had waited and gotten bad results, they may have influenced me negatively and kept me in a depressive cycle.

But, proactively reflecting on who I was rather than what I was facing led to a revelation. When I focused on who I was -- my foundations, my support, and my goals -- the storms didn't matter at all. They didn't change a single thing of substance. The storm may rage, but my foundation is firm. My visibility might decrease, but my support system -- my family, friends, and mentors -- will keep me moving in the right direction. The path may change, but the goal remains constant.

The only thing holding me back was me. In reality, I had not changed, I was just exhausted because I allowed my attention to be whipped around like a littered candy wrapper in a West Texas dust devil. I discovered that while each storm affected my path and forced me to recalibrate, they didn’t require me to abandon my passions, goals, or overall sense of who I was. I began to focus on who I was and where I wanted to go, rather than how the storms should be affecting me. Once the storms were no longer the primary focus of my attention, they got smaller, less significant, and much easier to overcome.

My family, friends and leadership team were all very supportive, extending what seemed like an inexhaustible supply of grace. They told me to take my time and focus on my family and getting well, that I had been through enough and deserved a break, and not to hurry back to work. So I took my time, did less, and was ultimately miserable. But, I rediscovered who I was meant to be in the midst of that misery. I was still the 104-pound high-school freshman dragging three football dummies across the field because no one else stayed to clean up after practice. I did the dirty work, but I also was the dreamer. I needed to be challenged. I needed big goals. I needed to use my talents to translate impossible visions into reality. So, I started dreaming big again, and got started doing the dirty work that would help me realize those goals.

Today, I stand on an unshakeable foundation, conjoined in support of, and with, others; focused on a set of radical-yet healthy goals; and committed to being the best husband, father, son, and Airman possible. I may struggle constantly with the idea that I’m not good enough, strong enough, or smart enough, but what I don’t doubt is the love of my God and family, my ability to get better, and my understanding that persistent hustle gets you closer to your goals than waiting for others to recognize how wonderfully talented we might be and how badly the world has treated us.

I encourage you to take some time and look at your life. What is going to keep you going, or pull you out of the storms when they come? For me, my spiritual pillar kept me alive and my family tightly bound together during our extended season of extreme weather. I’m still rebuilding my other pillars and grateful for the opportunity to share this story.

If you are in the middle of a tempest today, get real about your situation and get help as soon as you can. You are not alone, and we very much need you - even if you can’t see it right now. One team, one fight!

P.S. I sought mental health assistance and I kept my security clearance. But even if I had lost it, it would have been worth it to get the help I needed. I love the Air Force, but I love my wife and kids more. They deserve the best me I can give them.