Behind the Smile: My Mental Health Recovery Journey

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Danielle Rose
  • Space Base Delta 1 Public Affairs

It was a cold December morning and I had just finished a warm shower when I began wiping a fogged bathroom mirror with my hands. I stared at myself but didn’t recognize the person looking back at me. It was the first time I had looked at myself in months.

Over the past few months my mental health was rapidly declining. I was self-harming and barely eating or drinking. I told myself I didn’t deserve to feel happy because I believed I was a burden to the world. I stopped going out after work and wasn’t socializing unless it was during work hours where I was so drained from wearing a fake smile all day that I would sit and hide out in my car after work. This behavior was unlike me. My negative thoughts led to immense anxiety which ultimately led to thoughts of suicide.

But this wasn’t the first-time these thoughts had creeped into my life. I have struggled with the idea of suicide numerous times in my life. I would constantly tell myself that the world was better off without me and these thoughts only escalated whenever individuals in my life would tell me negative things they didn’t like about me or about how much of a burden I was.

Growing up in a military family that didn’t speak openly about mental health or emotions also didn’t help. I didn’t want to be perceived as the “burden” or “weak” so I decided to hide these thoughts from the world. I hid behind a smile from my teenage years into college — even into the first year and a half of active duty. I was so unwilling and afraid to tell anyone out of fear of judgement. Who would believe me? Who would care? I am an officer in the U.S. Air Force, I need to be strong and get over it. I need to focus on taking care of my family, wingmen, work and friends. I need to stop being weak.

When I would try to gain the courage to tell anyone, I always stopped myself. I couldn’t help but think about how good my life was — a great job, amazing coworkers, understanding supervisor, loving partner, having a roof over my head and food on the table. I had the appearance of a “perfect life” for a person who is only 23 years old. But in reality, I was suffering with self-harm and suicidal ideations that seemed to get worse by the day and it would be on that cold December morning that I reached my breaking point.

Going numb…

After staring in the bathroom mirror for minutes on end I opened the door and tip toed across the hall into my boyfriend’s bedroom, grabbing my phone off the charger. Before leaving the room I looked down at my phone screen where the date read “Sunday, December 17.” I put my phone in my pocket and from there headed downstairs where I walked to my car and let out a deep breath telling myself, “I’m tired, I’m a burden, I’m too weak to continue.” I had decided to follow through on a suicide plan — purchase a revolver and ammo from the nearest gun store and end it.  

Fifteen minutes later and I had arrived at a gun store where I walked in wearing a smile. I told the clerk at the counter that I wanted the “Revolver that will do the most damage to an intruder,” never indicating the real intentions behind my purchase. After selecting a revolver and getting my background check cleared, I was good to pay for my gun but under one condition — I couldn’t pick it up until three days later due to Colorado legislation that was put into effect on Oct. 1st, 2023, requiring a mandatory three day hold on gun purchases.

Despite being confronted with this information I followed through with purchasing the gun. I watched as the clerk swiped my credit card and handed me the receipt and from there I left and drove back to my boyfriend’s house. I lied about my whereabouts but hours later due to me forgetting to put the gun receipt in my wallet my boyfriend found it on the counter. He told me that if I didn’t tell my supervisor he would.

The truth comes out… 

It was the next morning and my fingers were trembling as I sat in my car outside of work staring at my phone trying to think of the right thing to text my supervisor. The text read along the lines of, “Good day ma’am, at your soonest availability when you get to the office I need to talk to you about something personal.” She responded that she would meet with me as soon as she got in. My hands were sweating and I felt dizzy, the fact I was going to open up about such a personal topic was making me uneasy. I started thinking about backing out of telling her but I knew if I didn’t tell her my boyfriend was going to and my ego got in the way as I needed to ensure I was the one to do it.

Moments later my supervisor came to my desk and told me she was ready to talk with me. As soon as I closed her office door I broke down in tears. I didn’t know where to start so I told her I was, “dealing with suicidal thoughts and purchased a gun yesterday.” She broke down in tears and explained how much I matter to her and the team and how she would do whatever it took to get me the help I needed to address my mental health.

My supervisor then called Peterson Space Force Base’s mental health clinic informing them of my state of mind and they responded that I would need to come in right away. She asked if I wanted her to come with me but I declined as part of me felt embarrassed and weak for finally letting someone know. But I also felt relieved because it was her supportive reaction to my mental health story that made me feel relieved to finally let the truth come out. Her reaction broke down all the negative stigma I had trapped in my mind over the years of dealing with my suicidal thoughts.  

I left her office in tears and drove to mental health. When I walked through the waiting room doors, my supervisor, the unit’s first sergeant and my office’s superintendent were all standing together, one by one reiterating how proud they were of me for being honest and asking for help. The four of us sat in the lobby waiting for my name to be called. As we waited, I couldn’t help but think about what was to come, specifically — would I have a job in the Air Force anymore? How are my coworkers and military peers going to view me when they find out? My rampant thoughts were cut off when a member of the clinic called my name.

When walking through the patient door I was escorted by an Airman at the clinic who took me back to their office. It was at this point they informed me that I would be getting driven by my unit’s first sergeant to Fort Carson’s hospital where I would stay in-patient for at least seventy-two hours or until the medical team there identified I was no longer a threat or harm to myself.

The car ride, while only being twenty minutes felt like centuries. The first sergeant offered to buy me food and assured me that everything was going to be okay, but I had no appetite and, again, all I could think about was my career and the fact that I wouldn’t be at work. Following behind us as we drove to Fort Carson was my office’s superintendent, ensuring I had extra company when arriving for check-in at the hospital.

After my vitals were taken, the hospital staff brought out a wheelchair and rolled me into the elevator. When the elevator got to the fifth floor I was escorted down a long hallway with the first sergeant and superintendent still by my side. I got out of my wheelchair and followed staff through a large door at the end of the hallway where I would end up staying for the next seventy-two hours.

Learning to sit…

Much of my seventy-two hours in-patient were spent sitting with myself working on puzzles for over five hours a day. The facility was cold, and I had to wear a light green outfit which made me feel like a prisoner. What made my seventy-two hours even worst was that it was the week before Christmas, so I was one of very few patients in the facility. Bored out of my mind, all I could do was sit with my emotions and think. I was angry with my boyfriend and the fact he forced me to tell my supervisor everything.

Why didn’t I just remember to hide the gun receipt? I’m an idiot. If only I hid it in my purse, I could have killed myself this weekend. But as angry as I felt about it all, I still looked forward to when staff would call my name and tell me I had a phone call. The only thing that kept my spirits up were the daily phone calls from my boyfriend as well as my father. They called me every day reiterating the same things my supervisor, unit first sergeant and superintendent told me — “Danielle, we are so proud of you and your bravery to get the help you need.”

When I wasn’t busy sitting around or watching the same re-runs of Hallmark Christmas movies, I was in one-on-one sessions with a psychiatrist which is where I would get a mental health diagnosis for the first time in my life — persistent depression disorder. It felt like a thousand weights had been lifted off me as I could put a name to how I had been feeling all these years. After my diagnosis the medical team placed me on a medication that would give my brain extra dopamine and serotonin.

But once my seventy-two hours of in-patient were met, I was going to say anything staff wanted to hear so I could get out of there. I was tired of being watched over, sleeping on beds that felt like concrete, having nothing to myself and of course I didn’t want to spend another second listening to Hallmark movies. Because of my perceived improvement and request to leave the unit, I was free to go, and it would be my supervisor, first sergeant and boyfriend that showed up to escort me out of the hospital.

We all drove back to Peterson where I reported to the mental health clinic for an immediate follow-up care plan. It would be during this meeting that the mental health team informed me that I was enrolled into a six-week Partial Hospitalization Program at the mental health facility Cedar Springs. I was to report to Cedar Springs for PHP Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Not only was I ordered to attend the program, but I was also instructed that over the course of the following six weeks I was not to do any work from my office as my duties were to focus on my mental health.

The road to recovery…

It took me two weeks before I began feeling comfortable enough to really open up with the therapist team at Cedar Springs. I struggled with the fact that this was my new “work” routine. I felt embarrassed and ashamed that my “job” was to literally talk about my feelings five days a week for over seven hours a day. This isn’t what an officer in the military needs to be doing. I need to be in the office with my Airmen and other coworkers, I need to be helping get the mission done.

But it would be during my third week of PHP that the therapists covered the topic of “healthy coping skills” in which we discussed things such as diet, exercise and positive affirmations. I had never heard of healthy coping skills before. The only coping I ever did was to self-harm or immediately think of ways to kill myself.  However, it was at the end of this group discussion where a light bulb switched on — I was going to promise myself to implement exercise into my life instead of self-harming.

After therapy that day I called my dad and boyfriend and told them about my promise. I knew by telling them it would keep me on track because I am a competitive and goal-oriented person so when someone expects something of me, I ensure it gets done. It wasn’t always easy to stick to my promise but after hitting day fourteen of my workout routine, I began noticing changes in my life. Specifically, I had developed a consistent sleeping pattern which helped me focus and feel better about myself. It would be after hitting thirty days that I decided I wanted to promise myself to use another healthy coping skill — give myself at least one positive affirmation a day. I began by looking at myself in the mirror every morning and telling myself “Danielle, I am proud of you for getting out of bed and getting ready for the day.” While small, this helped rewire my brain and stop me from being negative to myself. I would continue to follow through on both of these promises throughout my six weeks of PHP.

Taking the training wheels off…   

By the end of my six weeks being in the PHP program at Cedar Springs, despite me beginning to develop healthy coping skills, I still didn’t feel healthy enough to jump back into work full-time. As much of a workaholic I am, I knew deep down that I needed more time to work on things we were addressing in therapy. And so, it was during my mental health check in appointment at Peterson that I advocated for myself to continue being a patient at Cedar Springs through their Intensive Outpatient Program which would be another six weeks of treatment. IOP differed from PHP however as I would be at therapy Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and it was specifically only group therapy. I also got approved to be at work three days a week from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

One of the greatest things that came out of my additional six weeks in therapy was learning about the various organizations within the Colorado Springs area such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness who have various weekly in-person support groups for those living with mental health conditions. After learning about NAMI and the support groups they offer, I began attending their weekly Connection Support Group on Thursday evenings. Attending these meetings became a healthy outlet for me to release stress, worries, etc. and help me build a chosen family of support.

On March 27, 2024, after over three months of consistent therapy at Cedar Springs I was officially discharged and reported to Peterson’s mental health clinic to discuss my follow-up care and if any further treatment would be needed. While I enjoyed my time spent at Cedar Springs, I was feeling ready to dip my toes back in the water and return to work full time. From there the only follow-up procedures I was required to do was report to Peterson’s mental health clinic once a week for four weeks to ensure I was still improving.

The journey continues…

Throughout my entire therapy journey, Peterson’s mental health clinic made sure that I was aware of any updates that had to do with my military status. As soon as the Air Force became aware of my mental health struggles, I had a code 31 placed on my profile — Temporary Medical Deferment. This code stayed on my profile for the entirety of my treatment at Cedar Springs as well as a short timeframe afterwards. Worried about getting discharged, the mental health clinic answered many of my questions regarding my desire to continue my service. Because of the improvements I was making and the fact that I did not get diagnosed with anything that made me automatically disqualified from service it allowed them to help me through my entire therapy process and ensure I could stay in the Air Force.

If there is anything I’ve learned through my journey so far, it’s to not allow myself to be a prisoner within my own mind again and that expressing emotions isn’t a sign of weakness; If anything, it takes bravery and self-awareness. I’ve also learned that it takes courage to address when you need to take a step back and focus on yourself. Ultimately, it is the support I’ve received from my team, family, boyfriend, Delta Staff Agency leadership, Peterson’s mental health clinic, Cedar Springs, NAMI and others that gave me the courage to share my story. And always remember that if you can’t take care of yourself, how are you ever going to truly take care of another?

* The author of this article is not endorsing or creating an appearance of endorsement of any non-federal entity mentioned in the facts of this article. *