By Rob Simpson, MTI Contributor
Flight Doc to me: “We’re going to have to ground you.”
As a career aviator, those are words you never want to hear. At least I never wanted to hear them. Over the course of a long career, there were a few down chits for short term tweaks here and there. This time was different.
It started with nightmares. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, not sure if I was home or at work. The dreams were distorted, a subconscious mix of different SAR cases and survivors…or deceased.
After a few years of consistent sleep issues, things evolved a little more. I started avoiding social interactions. Going to the grocery store pegged my adrenaline. I’d sweat through a T-shirt sitting in the parking lot, psyching myself up to walk into the store to grab a few odds and ends my wife asked me to pick up on my way home from the air station. Even routine events, like my kids’ sports or small group bible studies became stress inducing obstacles. On the rare occasion that I was home for the weekend, I’d spend my daughter’s Saturday morning soccer games looking over my shoulder, on high alert, for no discernible reason. It drove my wife nuts. If we ended up at a neighbor’s house for dinner, I’d spend most of the evening outside, often alone.
I was a hair trigger. My adrenaline was stuck in overdrive. I’d later learn the term “hypervigilance.”
One Sunday morning, as we were getting ready for church, one of my girls dropped a pan in the kitchen. I snapped, jumped up out of my seat, full speed ahead. I looked like I was responding to a SAR case. I looked like a linebacker in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, distinctly out of place in our quant kitchen. Within the span of a second, I went from calmly sipping a cup of coffee at our farmhouse table, to level 10. If you’ve ever been there, you know what I mean. Thankfully, I didn’t yell or scream at my daughter, who had done nothing wrong. My wife however recognized the look on my face, and she sat me down for a little chat.
It was time to talk to the Flight Doc.
Truth be told, I made this promise a few years in a row. On previous mornings before my annual flight physical appointments, as I poured my coffee, my wife would ask if I was going to “come clean.” I would say, “yeah sure, I’ll feel it out.” As nightmares, sleep issues and anxiety got more and more intrusive, I’d tell my wife that it was high time to bring it up to Doc…but here was the thing… work was my life.
Being a helicopter rescue swimmer in the CG wasn’t just some job I clocked in at. I lived and breathed it. It was all I ever wanted to do, and being a part of that community was everything. When it came to medical, honest conversations about headspace issues were known to be career death sentences. I fell into the trap of sewing my self worth and identity into my career, which is dangerous ground…but like any well laid trap, you don’t know you’re in it until it’s too late.
Dr. Jordan Peterson says something to the effect of “telling the truth will set you on the adventure of your life.” I can honestly say that talking to my Flight Doc about my mental health challenges wholesale changed the trajectory of my life. I was in such a rough spot, that I was willing to put my 18 year career in a jeopardized position. I walked into medical that morning ready to metaphorically hand over my wings for good. I held my hat in shame. My posture was defeated. I felt guilty. I felt selfish. I felt like I was putting myself before my team. I felt as though I was going to become a pariah, an outsider to the community I loved like a family.
But here’s the thing. None of that happened.
After leveling with him, The O-6 Flight Doc, leaned back in his chair and took a silent beat to meet my gaze. He was cool, calm and collected. After I told him what was going on, he looked me straight in the eye and said “you’ve given the Coast Guard so much for so long, now it’s our turn to look after you.” He broke the news that I was grounded shortly after, and they coordinated a referral to a nearby Air Force Medical facility that day.
When I walked into the behavior health clinic, my first thought was “I should have joined the Air Force.” Those stateside Air Force facilities are immaculate. My second thought was, “I’m going to fully commit to this, whatever the process is.” All I wanted to do was fix what needed fixing and get back to doing my job. I was assigned to a counselor, and she took me back into her office. As it turns out, she was the Department Head of the Behavioral Health Unit. She asked me a few questions, wrote down some notes, and much like my Flight Doc, she sat back, took a silent beat, and looked me in the eye. She told me that she didn’t typically take on patients, but she would personally sign on to help me out. Then she said something that set me on a course for success. She said that everything I described to her were “symptoms,” just like an overuse injury. With enough time and effort, I could turn this around. She clicked her pen, and said “don’t feel alone…I’ve worked with people with symptoms just like yours, and many of them are back doing their jobs.”
Time and effort.
I’d say the hardest part of the whole ordeal was driving back to my unit. I wasn’t sure how to break the news to my Chief, a man I respected deeply. As I merged onto the highway, I got a call from a pilot who I knew from a previous unit (and a few long nights on the job). Turns out he was the acting XO that day. It was a brief call, but he asked me to stop by the command building on my way back.
As I pulled through the front gate, I made the left hand turn to get to the command building. Again, my posture probably told the story as I walked in and the civilian receptionist at the front desk directed me to his office. I managed to snap to attention as I entered his office, a gesture he smiled and waved me off. He motioned to a leather chair in front of his desk, and asked me to sit. I prepared myself to receive the inevitable bad news, exhaling deeply as I settled into the surprisingly comfortable chair.
“I got word from the Doc about what’s going on,” he said. He looked at me not as a pilot or Commander. He looked at me like his brother. “Anything you need…the command supports you.” He went on to say that he knew that I wasn’t going to be flying, but I could stay with my team and keep contributing if I wanted to. It was my turn to sit back in my seat and take a silent beat. That’s all I wanted. I just wanted to keep being useful. I didn’t want to let anyone down at work. He smiled, and said “we know that about you, and you are welcome to proceed however it makes sense for you.”
As I left his office, I felt hope for the first time in years. My next move was to call my wife and let her know I “came clean”, and that things might be a little different with my work schedule. On the other end of the line, I heard her exhale, and for the first time in our marriage, she said she was proud of me.
When I went back to the office and sat with my Chief, he sat me down and closed the door behind us. He is one of the hardest, toughest humans I’ve ever met. He smiled, said he was relieved that I took this grim, first step. It’s funny how we trick ourselves into thinking we are suffering in silence. That’s BS. Everyone around you knows, and they want to help. He said the same thing as the XO… “Anything you need…we got you.”
Back to Dr. Petersons quote…being honest about my mental health unlocked a world I didn’t know existed. People really cared. My family supported me. The Flight Doc went out of his way to help me. My chain of command, all the way up to the Skipper, backed me up and treated me with respect, not like I was broken or partially mission capable. That was the key that unlocked everything. If I had broken my leg on a SAR case and was on crutches, they would have treated me the same way.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a long road. It was hard work spilling my guts every week, It was uncomfortable to talk about things I didn’t want to talk about. I continued to sweat through T-shirts.
I will share this: not everyone got it. I’d love to say that it was all rainbows and hugs, but I wouldn’t be telling you the truth.
There was an unexpected ripple effect as well. I was part of a team that traveled and trained at almost every aviation unit. When I was on the road, I was honest about why i wasn’t flying. I told my story to the guys who asked. I didn’t filter anything. I was “grounded for headspace stuff.” That’s how I opened up. I interacted with other Swimmers all the time, across the country. I had a pretty expansive network of friends who were heavy hitters. There were, after a few chats offline, other guys who opened up and talked about their own experiences in a relieved, “hey it’s not just me” tone. Down the line, a few guys decided to get help also.
Fast forward ten months. I had another follow up with the Flight Doc. He’d asked me to come in once a month and check in, and he kept close comms with my Air Force Counselor. It was clear that I’d bought into the process. My sleep was better. My anxiety was more manageable. I was able to go out into the world with my girls and have a relatively good time. I was more productive at work. Even though I wasn’t flying, I was able to find ways to up my game. At ten months, I asked the Flight Doc when he thought I could get back in the helo.
For those who may not know, there is a giant administrative hurdle that has to be carefully navigated in the military aviation world. One of the buzzwords is “waiver.” You need a waiver from some medical headquarters unit to fly again, and typically they are stingy at best with flight waivers for mental health issues. Rightfully so. When it came time for me to learn my fate, there were a few factors in my favor. First, I knew I was retiring in the next two years. I was 100% sure that I was punching out at 20. Second, my symptoms improved significantly during my treatment time frame. The third factor was my chain of command. My Chief and Senior Chief made some non standard calls up the chain on my behalf, and for that I’ll be forever grateful. Essentially, instead of going through the whole waiver process, my Flight Doc took these factors into consideration, and said “get some.” I was granted a local waiver at the command level, and was immediately able to resume flight duties. There was only one stipulation. My Flight Doc asked that I come to him immediately if things started to regress. He put an immense amount of professional and personal trust in me, and for all intents and purposes staked his and the command’s reputation on it. Read it this way: I was treated like a valued professional. In less than a year, I was truly fit for full duty.
So here’s the big picture. For a long time, my life was small and it felt like it was getting smaller and exponentially darker. I was fortunate to have people in my life who called me out, and I was equally fortunate to have my ego in check enough to eventually listen. Once I took the hard, grim first step, everything changed. I finally saw a way forward. In retrospect, the idea that the rest of my life was going to be increasingly gloomy and dark until who knows when…that hopeless and endless grind seemed insurmountable. I couldn’t see past it. Once I ripped the proverbial band-aid off and got some help, there was a new course of action. It was hard. It sucked. It was humbling. But in the end, it kept me in the game.
Rob Simpson is a husband, father and retired USCG Aviation Survival Technician.