‘Facing Stigma’ with Gabe Ramos

“I was born in the Bronx but raised in a quiet town in New Jersey. I had a healthy imagination as a kid — always dressing up like Batman, Zorro, or some other superhero I would conjure up. My parents were good sports, they’d usually indulge me and thank me for coming to save them. More than the fantasy or the action or the heroism, I think I was drawn to the notion that one person, or a group of people, could change lives for the better. Even at such an early age, I was keenly aware of that fact and felt it pretty intensely. Flash forward to high school: I was already entertaining the idea of a career in the military when 9/11 happened. I think I saw it as my chance to be this sort of storied hero figure in my own myth, my Joseph Campbell call to adventure. I didn’t come from a warrior caste, no one in my family had really ever served. My grandfather told me it was always a great regret of his that he wasn’t able to serve in WWII. I was always a bit of a punk, a wannabe rebel trying to carve my own path so enlisting was probably just an extension of that. While everyone else was going to college or had their lives mapped out, I figured this was a way for me to stand out and do something different, something meaningful. The summer before my senior year I found a Marine Corps recruiter and enlisted. I received my diploma in May 2003 and 2 months later I was off to bootcamp. Within a few months of checking into my first unit they told us we were deploying to Iraq. I would end up deploying twice — the first time to Ramadi with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing and 1st Marine Division. We were part of supporting Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah and it was around the clock operations.

I think in retrospect, the most grueling and lasting part of that experience was the degree to which a sustained, heightened sense of alertness just sort of became our default setting. There was an ever-present threat of danger looming that we just learned to accept as routine. I remember walking with two of my friends when we started taking incoming mortar fire. One of the mortars blew up a few feet behind us and wounded my buddy. You have this idea of how you think you’ll act in a situation like that — you hope you’ll do something brave or heroic — but my first instinct was self-preservation and to just run for cover. Looking back now, I always carried this deep sense of shame and guilt because I felt like I should have done something differently. Long after I got back, I remember sitting in my room listening to this Springsteen song, ‘Devils & Dust’. There’s this line he sings that just wrecked me: “Fear’s a powerful thing, it’ll turn your heart black you can trust. It’ll take your God filled soul and fill it with devils & dust” For a long while it seemed I was just completely consumed by fear. Fear for my safety, for the welfare of those I was with. Fear of how I might perform in a difficult situation. Even more than that though, I was gripped by this existential fear. The kind that stops you from taking chances and convinces you that ‘well enough’ is good enough. Fear of failure. That I wasn’t as smart or as special as I’d always heard. Fear that I would never be as needed or as useful or important as I felt as a Marine — that I was never even deserving of the title in the first place. That fear & shame, that complete loss of identity really stuck with me after I got out. It ate away at me. I hated being alone with my thoughts because I’d always come back to this feeling that I’d never do anything significant again, that I had no purpose. I was self-medicating, drinking more & more heavily, doing everything I could just to numb myself because I didn’t want to feel anything. Panic attacks started coming on — sporadic at first, then with more frequency. I was plagued by anxiety but didn’t have a name for it. I eventually hit my bottom. I surrendered and asked for help.

I haven’t had a drink since February 2013. Obviously getting sober did a lot to improve my situation, but it also allowed me to realize that drinking was just a symptom, not the cause of my issues. And now, without the aid of self-medicating, and after going so long trying to numb my every emotional impulse, learning to navigate constant waves of feelings brought its own set of challenges. My first encounter with Headstrong was not as a client, but as an Outreach Fellow through the Mission Continues. It’s ironic that I was out there talking to veterans about this incredible resource but still reluctant to take advantage of it myself because of my own internal stigma and hang-ups about who deserves to seek help. I eventually reached out to Gerard at Headstrong and decided it was time. One of the things I’m most grateful for was getting matched with a therapist who really understood what it means to be in recovery. I’ve learned so much about how to manage both my feelings and expectations. More than that, how to shift my perspective enough to put things in their proper context. How to have more compassion — for myself and for others. To validate experiences. You can always say that someone has it worse — someone always does — but that doesn’t mean your experiences are any less valid. When I start having those intrusive thoughts of fear & doubt, I try to ask myself, “what’s the function of wallowing in this?”. I’ve learned that if every day I make an honest effort to stay true to my values — service to others, compassion, curiosity & understanding — it helps me to get out of my own head. To go back to the Springsteen reference, to guard against that fear taking over your heart, let your values be your North Star. Do something for someone, it’ll usually keep your head and your heart pointed in the right direction.”

Healing the hidden wounds of war