A1C Kaylee Dubois, a 633d Air Base Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, spends time with her dog, Watson, at JB Langley-Eustis, Va. Dubois spent roughly seven months in mental health treatment programs, and once she was successful in managing her own recovery process, she adopted a rescued dog, who now aids in her “self-treatment.” USAF photo by TSgt Katie Gar Ward
By A1C KAYLEE DUBOIS, 633d Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Although “wingmanship” is something I live every day as an Airman, I have been familiar with the concept my entire life. When I was a 16-year-old assistant Cub Scout leader, I sent a pack of 8-year-old Scouts on a mission to find branches to whittle into slingshots.
“Remember to look for strong, mendable tree branches,” I shouted.
When they returned, I began whittling the tree bark of my own branch with a knife, demonstrating how to bend branches without snapping them. Soon all the boys jumped up from their seats and began shouting.
“Help! Ms. Kaylee is bleeding! Help!”
I looked down and realized I had cut my finger. Looking back, I chuckle at the support those Scouts gave me over a small wound that only needed a Band-Aid. I wish I’d had those tiny wingmen these past nine months.
A STORM BREWING
Last fall, I felt like I lost my foundation when my best friend was reassigned and my supervisor (and biggest mentor) left on deployment. Soon, I was struggling to find my place as a new Airman and perform at the same level as my peers.
I developed a constant overwhelming feeling, as if I was spiraling down into a deep pit. Unable to find a grip to hold onto, I didn’t think I could pull myself out of that hole—I would never feel happy again. All I wanted was to hit rock bottom, so maybe, just maybe, I could start over again.
I silently begged, “Please just make it stop.”
What did I want to stop? My life? No, not my life. My thoughts, the pain, the sadness. I felt exhausted and alone, chaotic—imprisoned in a self-loathing bubble I couldn’t pop.
I thought, “You’re never good enough. People don’t like you. You’re constantly a bother. You’re awful at everything.”
Then those self-destructive feelings turned to rage; I snapped at friends, family, and coworkers. It was like being trapped inside my own body, watching an imposter take possession of my ordinarily warm and friendly disposition—slowly whittling away at Kaylee.
The clouds rolled in. Before my supervisor deployed, we had talked about how he struggled to find his place as an Airman. He said the 633d Medical Group Mental Health Clinic helped him, so I decided to speak with a therapist there. After one appointment, I understood what I suffered from—that it was treatable and common among military members. I felt less alone but still felt pieces of me were being chipped away.
When I thought things couldn’t get worse, my father was diagnosed with cancer, and I was afraid of losing him. My new supervisor suggested I visit a chaplain, so I gave it a shot. I left his office feeling better about my dad’s situation and hopeful for his future.
During my own recovery, though, I still lashed out at times. I used my sadness like a blanket to hide from the outside world. I couldn’t find the energy to care about anything.
One day, as I dealt with the storm brewing in my mind, a real storm developed. The base was on mission-essential reporting due to snow, so I sheltered in my apartment for four days, limiting my interactions with the outside world. I never felt more alone. I didn’t leave my couch. I barely ate or showered. I sat staring blankly at my television.
Later, I discussed the events with my therapist and we agreed that I needed treatment. That day, I admitted myself into Naval Medical Center Portsmouth’s Crisis Stabilization Program. In one week, I learned about self-care, communication, fears, expectations, and being mindful. I also practiced those concepts through art therapy, yoga, meditations, and group therapy exercises.
The program forced me to look at events that may have contributed to my anxiety and depression. It was emotionally exhausting but refreshed my sense of being. It mended my self-worth and life expectations. I wasn’t “cured” from depression and anxiety but felt I could tackle it. The day I left the hospital, I began to resemble who I once was.
Editor’s note: This is a condensed commentary written for National Mental Health Month. If you or someone you know can relate to Kaylee’s story, please contact:Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 or#BeThere by calling 1-844-357-PEER (7337) or texting 480-360-6188.For urgent assistance, call 911.During my journey to recovery, I learned to become proactive in my own happiness. I needed to help my wingmen understand what I was going through and my need to rely on them for help. Ironically, a few days after I returned to work, a friend told me he had tried to help me all those months, but I never noticed. He has been incredibly valuable to my recovery, helping me cast away stubborn, destructive thoughts.
Make no mistake: every day is still a struggle. I had to retrain my thoughts. I take medication and visit the Mental Health Clinic regularly. I sometimes feel depressed, but I now rely on techniques I learned to help me recover, such as forcing myself into nature by taking a friend’s pet to the park or reading a book in my hammock.
Also, talking candidly about my experience helps me connect with others. I feel part of the team—part of a family. Now that I have a better grip on life, I am far enough from my rock bottom to catch a glimpse of light shining from the top. That is where I want to be.
Tackling mental illness takes time. It’s an obstacle in the journey of life, but you must stay alive to see where that journey takes you. Things will always get better.
I’m definitely not the person I used to be, but I’m moving toward her. Thinking back to those days when I stood in the center of a Cub Scout troop concerned for my well-being, I am now surrounded by people who never gave up on me. They are slowly shaping me back into Kaylee.
Although that chapter of my life is now turning around, my journey wasn’t easy. Clouds didn’t suddenly part and fill me with sunshine and happiness. Instead, I spent seven months learning to manage—not cure—my depression and anxiety.