When I left the Marine Corps, I had a hard time carving a new identity for myself. I was terribly invested in what others thought of me. My public story was of crisp uniforms, physical fitness metrics, and successes. I always looked good on paper. My private story involved destructive choices, broken doors and holes in the walls, hiding weapons in the house, and getting dragged across the living room floor by my hair.[/caption]
I had no words to explain the disaster that had become my personal life and felt crippling shame about being one of “those people” with disordered drinking behavior going through a violent divorce.
I would have fit right in on the Jerry Springer show.
Right now we are losing more veterans to suicide than to combat. I’m a pretty decisive person with limited ability to ask for help and zero trouble taking risks; there was a time I could have become one of those statistics.
I stumbled quite by accident into three things that helped me regain my footing and become more resilient. I’m grateful for that stumble and always will be. Later, I learned that the research supports mental fitness training in the pre-incident space. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn until I was decidedly in the “post” camp.
First, I started treating myself in a healthy way again. I ate a little cleaner and made time for physical movement.
Not my typical physical movement, the kind where I used throwing up or a stress fracture as evidence that I was working hard enough – REAL, wellness-building movement that strengthened my body rather than punished it. I found myself on a yoga mat and never wanted to leave. In truth, I came to yoga as an athlete looking for something challenging, a fitness fad to master, and something to help me bend my unyielding muscles a bit more easily. What I found on the mat changed my life entirely. I found a practice that was about more than my body.
Be still and know that I am God –Psalm 46:10
For me, a huge part of self-care involved slowing down enough to listen. I spent a little less time talking and a lot more observing. That made space for faith and for a focus on other people. All of a sudden, my energy was redirected. I could be generous with myself and with the people I cared about. I found a new tribe of healthy people who shared those service ethic values.
And that was my beginning.
We can weather storms much better than I did – we don’t have to wind up tearful and alone with only a six-pack of beer to help us mourn. Resilience can be taught. Self-care modalities, social support cultivation, and spiritual practices are the components upon which we must rely to build our foundation in advance of the storm.
So if you’re left asking what it means to practice wellness?
Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas is a speaker, researcher, and storyteller. She is the author of several books on military health. Hendricks Thomas, also a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, helps businesses and military veterans optimize their performance through resilient leadership training. Her behavioral health research has been published in journals like Traumatology, the Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health, and Gender Forum.