COMMENTARY: Containing the Cactus

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Lillian Miller
  • 2nd Bomb Wing Public Affairs

The cactus inside of my brain twists and tangles my thoughts as the spikes rip through my skin and contaminate my mind. The cactus is my anxiety.

I remember growing up loving words. I was fascinated by the combinations of letters creating a new word with its own meaning. One word I remember learning was “anxious.” They told me it was an adjective to describe the feeling of being nervous. Unknown to me this particular combination of letters had already shackled me.

I knew that something was different with my social interaction processing. I didn’t know what was different, but I wanted to fix myself. I didn’t know it was a mental illness, but I knew I needed help. My parent’s refusal to accept this denied me the opportunity to get the help I needed to conquer my anxiety.

There was a stigma with getting help, especially therapy. I felt the weight of it in the negation of my mental illness, as if it were obvious that I was fine. I should be fine. Why wasn’t I fine?

I joined the Air Force Aug. 9, 2017. Shortly after I arrived at my first base, Barksdale. I wasn’t afraid of the stigma because I needed help. I wanted help. There had to be someone here to help me.

Within the first month, I lost count of how many people I broke down in front of. Frustration with myself set it off. I was a new Airman comparing myself to Airmen who had both more time and experience. I was impatient with the learning curve, with time itself and I overloaded myself with emotions.

I remember having a rough day and looking for my friend. Each step to her office had me crumbling until I reached the door, barely holding myself together, but it was locked.

I heard a voice behind me saying that the office was out for the day. As I turned toward the Airman, my throat was tied in a knot. I was hyperventilating and my eyes were varnished with tears.

I tried to hide my face as two more Airmen emerged and the three of them hurried toward me. I was ushered into a room, so I could finish my anxiety attack. I couldn’t go on like this.

I took the Periodic Health Assessment March 30, 2018. I was honest with myself and opened up about my anxiety. My assessment resulted in a few red flags. Eventually, I was connected to the mental health clinic.

I went to the clinic April 17, 2018. I was in the waiting room, signed in. I took a small survey at the beginning of the appointment asking about my safety and what I wanted to accomplish in my session that day. I wasn’t alone in the waiting room. I felt the thorns penetrating my skin as I looked at the array of Airmen and officers politely waiting. My mind was shrouded by the thoughts competing against each other. Anxiety made me afraid of what someone might say if they knew who I was or if my office knew how dysfunctional I felt. However, I didn’t let that fear overpower my need for help.

They called my name and I snapped out of my trance smiling at my therapist. I sat down in the soft chair across from her. She held a small notepad with my goal for the session written at the top.

We just talked. There was no fancy chair to lay down in. There was only an office with some inspiring quotes inscribed and painted onto wall art. We walked through some of my difficult social interactions and broke it down. We looked at what my anxiety had told me and compared it to the situation logically.

I kept having to reset my perspective and purge the toxicity that corrupted me. Anxiety made me feel like I was the stupid one. Why didn’t I do that a certain way or why didn’t I say it like that? The cactus made me hate myself in a different way, however, she taught me how to conquer my cactus.

Throughout the treatment, she introduced me to tools and techniques to combat my cactus. She helped me track my thoughts, sorting them into which were realistic and which were distorted. I monitored how much I believed the distorted thoughts and watched as the numbers decreased.

The beauty of the system I had stepped toward was that I was in a whole different space. My job wasn’t affected by my medical appointment every other week. I opted to tell my leadership about my decision to go and updated them on my development. They were incredibly supportive and encouraged me to go. They wanted me to be the best Airman I could be. I took the challenge and I made it happen. The stigma I had created in my mind is a myth.

I remember my last appointment. I sat in my chair differently. I actually had a posture. I felt like myself. I was eager to talk about my progress and the amazing improvements I have made. I had developed an insurmountable support system. My therapist said I seemed confident and asked if I really needed to be there. I felt the prick of a single thorn in the back of my neck. Was I ready? I was. I still am.

I ended my formal treatment at the clinic Sept. 20, 2018. I still use the tools they gave me. I still have the cactus. It lives in my mind, but now I am in control.

I found my help with the 2nd Medical Group Mental Health clinic. If you would like to set up an appointment, please talk to your provider or call 318-456-6555.