Being Resilient

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Shelton Sherrill
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

“I think about killing myself sometimes, but I'm not suicidal.”

Those were the types of thoughts that I had floating around in my mind every time I sat through yet another resiliency or suicide prevention training. Like many other Airmen, I classified these trainings as something to check off the list for the weekend.

In my mind, I would never actually try to hurt myself. My values, perspective on life, and support system were too strong for me to seriously consider self-harm. I used to view suicidal people as weak because I saw myself as someone mentally strong and immune to thoughts of quitting in life. Back then, my thoughts were just hypothetical ideas of escaping the stresses of everyday life. Thoughts I'm sure many people have played out in their head but never expecting them to grow into something more. In my 30 plus years of living, I knew there was nothing so devastating that it would cause me to become suicidal … or so I thought.

One of the toughest years of my life was in 2017. It started with the death of my grandmother. A trip to the doctor for a "simple procedure" transformed into complications that placed her in a coma from which she would never recover. Losing her was a hard blow that put a crack in the foundation of who I was.

Luckily small pieces of those resiliency trainings were rooted in my subconscious. Doing activities to make me happy, exercising regularly, and being thankful for things in life helped me deal with the stress. Life gives you a pretest before it hits you with the exam. Finding resilience during my grandmother's death was the pretest.

As my mental and emotional wounds began to heal, death came knocking at my door once again. It quickly brought me back to the same emotional place I was at three short months earlier.

I received news that my mother was admitted to the hospital due to abdominal pains. Doctors couldn't find the cause and needed to conduct a few tests. I could see she was in discomfort when I went to the hospital, but she still greeted me with her unique warm smile and a hug. I believed it wasn't anything severe and expected her to be out in a day or so. My confidence increased when doctors discovered the issue and a solution. The nurse assured my family they just needed to do a "simple procedure" to fix it.

"My father had to get the same surgery, and he came out with no issues," the nurse said to us. 

Shortly after the operation, I received a call from the hospital. My mother had some complications that put her in a coma. She, too, never recovered. I kept thinking, "It was supposed to be a simple procedure."

With my grandmother’s death still fresh in my mind and hearing about my mother’s condition, resilience training was washed from my memory. I didn't have the strength to practice the few skills I did know when the stress became too much. I was taking a final exam … and I failed.

I wore a mask every day, pretending that everything was okay. In actuality, my world was filled with chaos. I was juggling the duties of my mother's estate while trying to grieve. I had to deal with the demands to perform at my civilian and military job. I ignored my well-being, trying to be a source of strength for my siblings, and fulfill my responsibilities as a husband and father. It felt like I was carrying the weight of a mountain on my shoulders, and the next pebble could cause it all to come crumbling down.

My thoughts about death stayed as thoughts but became less innocent and more frequent. Even then, I didn't consider myself suicidal. I simplified it as a way to reconnect with a part of myself I lost and to stop the pain I felt. My mother was my source of values, strength, and motivation they talked about during training. When I lost her, I thought I lost myself.

I wanted to ask for help but thought no one would understand.

I wanted to ask for help, but I didn't want pity or to be judged.

I wanted to ask for help, but I told myself I could handle it.

Truthfully, I was too proud and stubborn to ask for help. Thankfully, I had a support system of family and friends who noticed and took action. They were the guiding light that led me out of a dark space that I didn't realize I was in. Just being there to talk to me was all it took. I eventually saw a grief counselor that reinforced the same lessons from those resiliency training I previously ignored.

Now I realize that resiliency training isn't another training leadership enforces, so they can say they're actively fighting against suicide in the military. You may see instant results after practicing techniques. To me, we train to condition the mind and spirit for future events. It prepares you to handle the pressure during life's tests.

Resiliency isn't something you practice when you're in control and going through your daily routine of life. It's the strength you need to push through during times of change and uncertainty. It helps you focus on what matters, so you don't give up. You may not know how to deal with every situation life throws your way, but you can prepare yourself to weather the storm and bounce back.