5 Years, 5 Things

I am 5 years old today.

5 years ago today I survived a suicide attempt. I had gotten to a place where I sincerely believed that the very best thing for everyone - me, my family, my friends, my community, everyone - would be if I was no longer around. And I decided to act. 

Luckily I suck at suicide.

5 years ago I woke up in the UNC ICU, handcuffed to a bed. I would spend some time in jail, some time in an inpatient psych facility, and nearly 2 years on probation. I would struggle to rebuild myself and my mental health. 

It has been a long 5 years. But today is my alive day. I am here now. I am grateful for every moment. And I have learned a lot. 

And here are the 5 most important.

1 - Two things can be true at the same time.

Mental health struggles are real, and can be every bit as debilitating (sometimes even more) than physical challenges. And mental health challenges have a unique characteristic. While there are fundamental differences between, say PTSD and schizophrenia, or bipolar and an eating disorder, there is also a lot of overlap. Mental illness can cause similar thought patterns regardless of the specific illness.

One of these overlapping ways of thinking is that mental illness causes you to think in very binary, either / or ways. When I was at my worst, I thought that every situation I encountered could only be seen one way. I was clearly a shitty person. I caused people pain. I made mistakes. I deserved punishment. I was incapable of seeing things differently.

What I have learned over the last 5 years is that two things can be true at once. And here is the important part - those two things can be true even when they are in opposition to one another. I have caused people pain. I have made mistakes. I have been reckless and selfish and sometimes petty and mean. And. I am also a person deserving of love and care. Those things are both true, even when they conflict.

Life is hard. People are complicated. And beautiful. The truth is big enough to hold all of it.

2 - The criminal “justice” system is dehumanizing and causes more problems than it solves.

I spent most of the two years after my suicide attempt in the system. I went to veteran’s court every week for a year, and then every month for another year. I had a probation officer who I had to check in with regularly and who made random checks in my house. I lost my driver’s license. I had to pay fines and court costs and do community service. The whole process was dehumanizing and scary. I was completely at the whim of people who it felt like were - at times - not even listening to me. I had no control over my own choices or my own time. And if I questioned or pushed back or wavered in even the smallest way, then I ran the risk of going to jail. I'm not gonna lie. It was hard. And it made me bitter.

And. At every step of the way, I had every possible privilege and benefit. I was white and male. I was educated. I had served in the military. I shared a common background and a common culture with most of the people in the system. I was resourced in every sense of the word. I had a reliable income, my housing situation was stable, I had a loving and supportive family. Every single advantage. And it was still hard. 

There are lots of people in the system fighting to make it better. But anyone who looks at the news and thinks that we are going to "reform" ourselves into a just system is simply not seeing the issue clearly. We as a society have to fundamentally rethink what it means to protect and serve and build community. Ditching money bail and electing progressive prosecutors is good (and not nearly enough). Abolishing prison and completely reimagining law and law enforcement from the ground up is better.

3 - It's easy to be supportive of people when life is good. It's hard to show up when it's hard.

A couple of weeks ago Matthew came home on a surprise visit from the Air Force. It was such a wonderful thing. We were so happy to see him, and he was happy to be home. I was able to go to the airport to pick him up and bring him home without anyone else knowing. I took a video of his homecoming and it was sweet and wonderful and emotional and all the things. I shared the video on Facebook and it was viewed and liked and commented on dozens of times. 

A couple of days ago I posted a heartfelt outpouring of emotion about the Biden administration decision to leave Afghanistan. While the right decision, it comes at least 15 years too late, and I have sacrificed so much for two countries (Iraq and Afghanistan) still riven by violence and chaos. I watched friends die. There is a through line from my childhood trauma to my suicide attempt 5 years ago, and that through line runs through Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Not nearly as many people liked that one. Everyone wants to see the happy homecoming. No one really likes the messy reality of sacrifice and struggle. That's not a judgment. I do it too. It is easy to celebrate people's joy. It is hard as fuck to walk with them in their sorrow and struggle and challenge.

One of the things I have learned over the last 5 years is to pay attention to the people who show up when things go sideways. The people who are there when you are at your worst and share a joke or a meal or a cry. The people who don't turn away from your anger or your awkward or your fear. The people who show up. Because those are the people worth investing in. Those are the people who matter.

4 - I have been drunk. I have been sober. Sober is better.

I am an alcoholic. It took me a long time to be comfortable admitting that. It took a long time to overcome that. And. I am. I can't just have one drink. I have to have them all. And that thirst fueled my most self-destructive impulses. My addiction very much wants me dead. All addictions do. They want everything you have. They are like viruses.

Today I have been sober for 5 years. It is the longest period of sobriety I have had since I was 13. I am healthy. Mu mind is clear. I see things as they are.

It doesn't mean I am perfect. I make mistakes. I can be easily distracted. I don't always follow through as well as I would like. I can be prickly. Messages to me should really just be seen as prayers. They might get answered. They might not.

But my worst day sober is better than my best day drunk. And my sobriety has survived over a year of pandemic and 4 years of Trump, so I am thinking it will be here for a while.

This is the best thing to come from a bad thing.

5 - I am loved.

If there is one thing above all else I have learned the last 5 years it is that I am loved. It turns out people would have actually missed me. That there are a lot of people happy I am here.

My family has been amazing, and has shown unconditional love and patience. I would start talking about how incredible Barbara is, but I think Substack has a character limit. I could say so much, but I will just say this... she is the reason I am here. 

My friends have shown up. I have people I know I can ask anything of, and they will be there. I know that I am never alone. I know that my people are there if things ever get dark again.

And more than any of that, I love me. I think that I am worthy of love and good things and positive energy. That is a big deal. That took 5 years of really hard work. It is an ongoing journey. I can still find myself questioning my worth. Only now, that is temporary. Hope is usual. 5 years ago, that was reversed.

I believe that change is possible. I believe people can change because I changed. And because people can change, I believe the world can change. 

Because this? All this? It is what we make it.

Choose love. Choose kindness. Choose honesty. Choose vulnerability and care.

Choose to be your best you. You deserve that.

And I gotta tell you. That is a pretty profound thought for a 5 year old.