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How to Find Mental Independence When You’re Up the Creek Without a Paddle

When we think about independence, we tend to think about the freedoms we enjoy thanks to the veterans who fought for us to have those rights. But what about when you’re fighting for freedom from traumatic thoughts?

Marine Corps and Coast Guard veteran Chad Hiser faced exactly that.

Starting in childhood, Chad faced challenges with neither biological parent fully present. He grew up feeling angry about everything, and by the time he was 14 years old, he decided he wanted to join the military as soon as he was done with high school.

After participating in his school’s Army JROTC, he joined the Marine Corps as a mortarman. He was part of the initial invasion into Iraq three years later. In a single day — March 23, 2003 — 18 marines were killed in Nasiriyah.

After returning from a six-month deployment to Afghanistan, Chad faced culture shock in a place he once called home.

“You don’t come back the same, whether you want to admit it or not,” Chad said. “Whether you’re a bit more uncomfortable being around crowds, or you don’t like loud noises, or certain smells set you off, or seeing a bag of trash on the side of the road as you drive by freaks you out — it’s the little things you never thought about before that suddenly become prominent.”

Chad’s wife, Lindsey, encouraged him to go to church with her, in an attempt to cope with his feelings. He went a few times, but his heart wasn’t in it.

He opened up to Lindsey though about losing somebody on deployment. When he shared with her, he started to realize he hadn’t been feeling right. At the time, he didn’t realize he was experiencing PTSD symptoms.

“Things were different,” Chad explained. “I felt uncomfortable just going out in public. I got nervous around crowds. I went off the handle easily. I just didn’t know what was wrong.”

Chad thought being out of the military was causing some of his difficulties, so he decided to join the Coast Guard.

Unfortunately, there was lots of downtime where he was stationed. This left plenty of time for him to think about things, which led him down a dark path. He was miserable, and started to feel like he was making everyone around him miserable, too.

He often remained awake at night, unable to fall asleep. Chad’s roommate had trouble sleeping, too, but he kept a bottle of sleeping pills handy. One day when Chad felt like facing his challenges just wasn’t worth it anymore, he attempted suicide by downing his roommate’s bottle of sleeping pills. Luckily, his roommate got him to a hospital, where they saved his life.

The Coast Guard made Chad attend counseling after that, and he began taking a number of medicines to help manage the effects of PTSD. He was medically retired after that with an official PTSD diagnosis.

He continued taking his medicines, but he said they made him feel numb. He often fell asleep before dinner, and the next two years were a blur of therapy, medications, anger, and depression. Chad couldn’t find a job — partially because he was honest with employers about his PTSD — and felt lost and isolated.

“I didn’t tell anybody I had attempted to kill myself because I felt like it made me weak,” Chad said. “It was hard for Lindsey because she didn’t want to tell people what I was dealing with. I knew that was hard on her.”

Eventually, Lindsey convinced him to open himself up to faith, and things slowly started to improve. Through attending church, Chad found his pastor held no judgment over his past or feelings. He began to open up and connect with others, and eventually, he reached out to Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP).

Chad attended a WWP mental health workshop, and that was a huge turning point for him. He recalled thinking, “Maybe this won’t last forever. Maybe I can learn to live my new normal and adjust to the way I am now.”

He previously felt like he was in a boat in the middle of the ocean with God — but without a paddle. He shared and contributed a lot with the group at the WWP workshop, and because of that, the group wanted to give something to him. It was a paddle, signed by his fellow veterans at the workshop.

“It was a sign that I’m supposed to dedicate myself to helping other veterans,” Chad said.

Chad had found his purpose. He became a peer mentor, guiding other warriors at mental health workshops. In this role, he confronted his demons repeatedly, and his problems lost their hold on him as he shared. He finally understood the meaning of something his pastor told him:

“Things you leave in the dark hold power over you, but if you put them in the light, they lose that power.”

Chad added, “When I start to engage with veterans and help them out, I can almost feel like I’m getting a little bit of myself back — a little piece of myself that I lost so long ago.” He explained that sharing with other veterans has forced him out of his comfort zone, but also helped him grow and learn to see himself in a positive light.

Since then, he’s participated in other WWP program events, including Soldier Ride® and physical fitness opportunities.

Chad has some advice for other warriors who are searching for that mental independence — that freedom from the dark thoughts that cloud over possibilities for positivity and hope.

  1. Get out of your comfort zone of isolation. In that comfort zone, your mind is an echo chamber. All you’re doing is confirming your negative thoughts — and that’s going to put you in a darker place.
     
  2. Find a positive outlet. Whether it’s exercise, journaling, cooking, or something else, a hobby can keep you away from negative things that could lead down a dark road. It helps keep you mentally focused on what you want to put your energy toward.
     
  3. It’s OK to feel pain. Pain is not uncommon or abnormal, especially as you transition out of the military. Your mind rewires itself after experiencing trauma, and it’s essential to work through the pain so you can get to a better stage of recovery.

“I love Wounded Warrior Project because it’s an opportunity to be able to meet new people and learn from them and build relationships and friendships that can last forever,” Chad said. “Because of Wounded Warrior Project, I realized I wasn’t alone. Other people are dealing with the same things I am. And if they can get better, so can I.”

About Wounded Warrior Project

Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.

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