A female veteran’s journey through post-combat mental illness.
Story: Susie L. Landown-Clarke
As an accomplished combat warrior, I had to confront a different enemy after returning from war. I was at a major disadvantage because this enemy had seized the most important weapon imaginable: my mind.
I became ill after suffering overwhelming mental duress and often was viewed as twisted and distorted. I had no idea the devastation mental illness inflicted nor the societal perceptions I would face. It was painful that others perceived me as weak rather than ill, causing a backlash of emotional stress. The notion that I was responsible for my debilitating health was not only naïve thinking, but cruel shunning, affecting an ailing group of people who are ill-equipped to deal with a debilitating mindset.
Weakened by affliction and societal stigma, it was no surprise that my mind experienced a hollowness in expressing emotions. These mindless thoughts with irresponsiveness seemed beneath my nose instead of above my eyes. My features appeared normal but they were ghostly reflections—drowning the essence of my identity. Even my complexion vanished, causing inexplicable blurriness. I was beginning to camouflage my feelings and reactions to protect myself from societal stigmas. Something uncontrollable was inflicting chaotic mood swings as I thought about my tangible gravities.
There were times that I stared into different-sized mirrors to confirm my existence. I felt as if I were shrinking. My vision was blurred, signifying a sense of personal absence even though I was physically present. As time passed, it became clear I not only looked different, I felt different and, in turn, began to act different. I was unraveling. I contemplated my truths but I never disclosed any cerebral changes. These roaring, emotional storms seemed demonic; they unveiled life-threatening fears and ignited an overwhelming uncertainty.
How could I be sure whether this psychological submersion was not an overreaction? With whom could I share this fear without fearing the loss of my career and my livelihood? I was afraid of people labeling me—people who didn’t know me could not comprehend the pain, seclusion, anxieties, and fears I suffered during my 22-year military career.
As waves of confusion and doubts washed over me, I surrendered to a plunge in masking waters. I was as imbalanced as the roaming seas, and no boundaries existed to keep my head above the oppressive waters. Thus, the spillage was too much to imagine or confront. I felt no one would hear or understand my muffled cries. I decided it was time to free myself. Suicidal thinking was one concern, but a debilitating state of mind was a health crisis.
It is a difficult journey to unveil truths while society aims to conceal or ignore the realities of mental illness. This is why I chronicled my five-year mental seclusion in my book, “Mental Illness—MI Doesn’t Look Like ME,” as I worked to recover. My desire is to offer solace and understanding through the intimate, raw details of my personal story. The essence of the book’s title suggests I cannot tell you what mental illness looks like, only what I felt like, as one sufferer to another.
As a woman, combat veteran, mom, and wife, there was an overload of expectations compelling me to pause mentally without consent or warning. Other variables affected my disability, as well. Years earlier, I experienced three mini-strokes and three head-on vehicle collisions. These mental traumas compounded my depression, anxiety, memory loss, and post-traumatic stress disorder. My PTSD diagnosis led to further panic and distress. Like a cancer, mental illness invaded my entire body, and the longer it remained untreated, the more havoc it wreaked.
After receiving my diagnosis, I began treatment and finally confronted my mental illness face-to-face. I experienced life-changing epiphanies and rerouted my psychological drift above salty waterways toward a bittersweet bon voyage. Above all, I learned I was not alone. Mental illness impacts one in every four Americans according to the World Health Organization. Each person experiences it in a different way. The same treatment therapies that work for one may not for another.
Ultimately, my most profound test was to undertake a health provider’s challenge: strengthen my faith. My diagnosis was not about my powerlessness to succumb to mental illness; it was about God’s power in commanding me to submit for healing. Without this, recovery would have been incomprehensible.
About the writer → Susie L. Landown-Clarke is a veteran of the U.S. Army with nearly 22 years of combat experience. She holds a master’s degree in business administration and lives in Prosper, Texas.