Taking off the stripes: a personal look at depression

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- Taking off your stripes is a common expression in the military when you're having conversations with people who outrank you -- maybe overused or cliché in the opinions of some. When I say that for this commentary, this isn't as Airman 1st Class Nicholas Emerick; this is as Nick Emerick, a kid from Kansas City, Missouri.

As of the writing of this article, it has been nearly three months since I began treatment and two months since I started taking medication for persistent depressive disorder, otherwise known as dysthymia. Progress has come slowly, but I am certainly different now than I was. I feel human again; the worth of life is returning, and I no longer see this place as a prison.

I joined the Air Force at 19 after a half-hearted attempt at college. I hadn't really attended class much, and I was wandering through life, looking for a purpose. I wanted to do something that my parents would be proud of, so I went and talked to a recruiter and began the delayed entry program process. My first job in the Air Force was as an Air Traffic Control student at Keesler Air Force Base. I struggled with the course, making it to the last block of instruction before ultimately washing out.

After I washed out of air traffic control, I became really disheartened. Depressed. I told my squadron commander that I didn't want a re-class; I felt like I didn't deserve one. Thankfully, he had more foresight than I did at the time and gave me another chance at serving my country. I waited around through January and into February at Keesler, serving on charge of quarters and additional duties like cleaning the dormitory or whatever else needed to be done in the technical training area of the base. I also watched the people I had met and friends I made slowly trickle out until I was the only one left before I was notified of my new job as a photojournalist.

I left the warm southern climate of Biloxi, Mississippi, to travel to Fort George G. Meade in Maryland. I arrived to snow-covered terrain and a cold that stung the air. Despite the excitement I had in anticipation of my new job, there was still the feeling of failure hanging around me like a ghost. A sense of dread festered within that I would be spending nearly a year in training. As I lived my life with this shadow hanging around in a constant anxiety, anticipating another failure. I spent my free time looking for a means to escape my life.

I couldn't admit to anyone, much less to myself, how much of a problem this bout with depression was. Every day I woke only looking forward to when I could be asleep again, because sleeping meant I didn't have to be anything else. I didn't have to feel anything else - not fear or anger or the tides of my own growing despondency and detachment from reality. I secreted myself away in my own world, a world where I was one with the darkness and everything meant nothing to me. The only thing I really had was the memories of how much these things would have mattered.

I wouldn't say that I struggled in classes, but I didn't excel. I just was -- a passive existence. It was the beginning of a time in my life where I felt more alone and misunderstood than ever before, which is saying something. I felt like I was living a satire of my own life, like it was a joke that only I wasn't in on.  I graduated from the Defense Information School and was stationed at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, an assignment most people would be thrilled to receive -- myself especially, seeing as my whole life I had wanted to travel -- and here I was, moving to Japan. But I wasn't excited; I wasn't anything. I just went where I was told because that's how things work.

One thing a lot of people don't tell you about traveling is how hard it is or how hard it could be, depending on your outlook. I climbed aboard a plane in Maryland, and in less than a day, an ocean now separated me from my family and friends, my support network, my life, or more so the life of Nick the boy and the life of Nick the young man. The distance aged me more than I thought it would. There wouldn't be any spur-of-the-moment trips home, and talking to my friends and family would become more difficult because of the time differences. Adapt and overcome.

The beauty of Okinawa felt more like spit on my face, veritable walls of Jericho. Much like Calypso, the island was my personal prison, but it wasn't the island I couldn't escape, it was my own head. As I dwelled in my room, the darkness crept deeper still. I was on island for two months when some problems that I had left with my old life resurfaced, and I receded further yet. I found myself at the bottom of everything or as close you can get without disappearing forever, a thought of which I had begun to grow disturbingly affectionate.

I spent two more months like this, drifting aimlessly, struggling to survive, metaphorically. That is until one sleepless night out of a hundred others I began writing. I wrote about these feelings that I had, and I was finally able to admit to myself, as well as those few who read my blog, that I needed help. I needed someone to save me because I had long ago fallen overboard and my arms and legs began feeling like cinderblocks, tired of treading water.

Writing a blog may seem like a silly place to find a light in the dark, but at this point, it was the only thing I saw, so I gave chase. I made an appointment to see a psychiatrist at mental health. And then I didn't go to the appointment. I couldn't face myself; I had an anxiety attack for the first time since leaving Keesler. But I refused to give up, so I called mental health again and apologized, and I made another appointment for the next day.

Being able to talk to someone about my problems was not the weight being drawn from my chest, so much as it becoming a weight I was capable of bearing. No longer Atlas, alone with the world crushing down upon me. A hand now broke though the darkness that encapsulated me, offering me a torch.

It truly is beautiful here, and as the fog of my mind clears, I have begun to appreciate it.

I didn't write this commentary just to tell my side of the story, I wrote it to say I know how hard it is to get help. If you're struggling with depression, or someone you know is, it's not weak or wrong to get help, which was hard for me to accept. It doesn't have to be the same way I did, through mental health. It can be through talking to a chaplain or a therapist, anything that you think would help you, because that's what this is about. Getting better.

I know that the war has not yet been won, but I feel assured in this small victory. It's a victory that has led to the construction of goals, some more lofty than others: serving at a combat camera squadron, attending Syracuse through the military program, winning the Department of Defense military photographer of the year, working for Airman Magazine, making a life of the opportunities I have been given, becoming the best I can be. The road may be long, but I have a new family in the Air Force as well as the U.S. military in general. It certainly won't be an easy journey, but as Albert Camus once said, "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

If you need to talk to someone, call the Kadena Mental Health Clinic at 630-48171 or contact a chaplain at 634-1288.