‘Facing Stigma’ with Tahlia B.

“I’ve always had an intense love for languages. In high school, I took French, Spanish, and Latin, foregoing traditional electives, because nothing else excited me in such a way. I didn’t feel the traditional college path was for me so I started exploring different translation-related careers. One day I stumbled upon the Air Force cryptologic language analyst job, and I was in a recruiter’s office the next week. I was young, hungry, and ready to start my life, so I enlisted the literal moment after I passed all the required tests. I was initially trained as a Chinese linguist, but soon after arriving to my unit, I was given the unique opportunity to learn Pashto and work an urgent ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) mission. I learned that I’d get to work with a formidable team of operators thwarting attacks on special forces units and special ops missions, and realized it was the coolest thing I could possibly do in my career. However, I was told the “turbo course” was designed for people who already spoke a language similar to Pashto, and that I’d only have a few months to master what DoD classifies as one of the most difficult languages to learn. I was determined to keep pace with the other students, so I learned the Pashto alphabet and some basic phrases the day before my first class. There were a lot of late nights and weekends spent studying on top of the 10-plus hour days of class and homework. I became good friends with my instructors who were natives of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and they graciously helped me learn outside of class. We’d get together and they’d teach me how to cook traditional food they grew up with and tell me their heartbreaking stories from youth. At the end of the course, I was amazed to learn I graduated at the top of my class. Afterwards, I went right to work. We tirelessly fought anything that put our people and operations at risk. One night, I very luckily discovered something huge that the enemy was plotting.

The enemy plan I discovered was a major attack on a team of 75 top-tier Special Forces troops, mostly Navy SEALs, and around a hundred million dollars of airborne assets. What started out as a calm night turned into a life-or-death race against the clock to find out where it was going down and then to get that information to the right people. Without giving too much away, it was because of our small team that we were able to find the team at risk so that they could change up their plans. I’d like to think that a lot of lives were saved that day because of this discovery. That moment really struck me: I realized that this is what it’s all about. I was so proud to be a part of such an amazing team. We were family. We loved each other, got angry and emotional together, missed our families and birthdays and special occasions, worked holidays and weekends, and sometimes 20 hour days together. The hardest days were when we lost people on the job. We were tasked to keep people safe and constantly apprised of the sinister forces working against them them so that they could operate in the safest environment possible. It was hard not to feel somewhat responsible any time we’d miss something. Given the nature of the work, it was impossible that we’d catch everything. That pressure started to wear on me. The enemy was ruthless in their mission, and our crew knew that we had to be the same in ours. I started to develop what I can only describe as attachments to the teams and areas I was assigned to. Sometimes I was the only Pashto linguist on watch, and ultimately it felt like the lives and safety of the teams were riding on me during the hours I was tasked. The consequences of failure were huge. Despite loving my job and my team, I developed an unforgiving sense of perfectionism, guilt, feelings of inadequacy, and major anxiety.

On the outside, I looked buttoned up. I smiled, laughed. I faked it really well. But on the inside I was falling apart. I’d have random panic attacks three to four times a day and I found myself considering every option to make them stop. I opened up to a friend who told me that if I sought professional help, my badge would be pulled, I’d lose the job I loved, and I’d never work in intelligence again. But my anxiety was at a breaking point. I’d get shortness of breath, chest pains, foggy vision, tremors, racing thoughts, the feeling I was going to pass out. I can’t stress enough how much major anxiety erodes and changes you as a person. I wasn’t my chipper, bold, adventurous self anymore. When my military contract was up, I thought a less stressful environment would fix things. But anxiety and panic still crept up on me. I hit an all-time low when someone very close to me died by suicide. I felt that it shattered any piece of the old me that remained. The weight of it all was beating me and seeping into every area of my life, from work, to relationships to what I could and couldn’t bare to eat. I felt I’d never again be myself or fulfill my dreams — until Headstrong. A year ago, I reached out at the suggestion of a friend. I didn’t expect to feel so different so quickly, but after a few sessions, something drastic happened. I remember getting ready for bed one night and realizing that I didn’t have some form of incapacitating anxiety that day. Headstrong gave me the tools to reprocess, to discover the rational, to view my experiences in their true form rather than what fear and guilt had twisted them to be. Since then, I haven’t had a single panic attack. I was given the most precious gift of a second chance at who I’m supposed to be. Headstrong gave me my life back. I’m not only back to who I was, I’m a better version of myself.”

To provide mental health treatment to veterans like Tahlia, please consider donating to the Headstrong Project at http://getheadstrong.org/donate/

Healing the hidden wounds of war