This blog may not be the most light and fluffy, it comes with a TRIGGER WARNING. But what brought me to find my niche within the world of fisheries with the help of Mt. Adams Institute’s VetsWork Program is what has shaped my success so far in the program. And it’s an ugly story.
I spent 6 years in the US Coast Guard (CG), bouncing all over the world traveling to my little heart’s content as a mechanic onboard ships. I dabbled in other areas of the CG, getting qualified as Boat Deck Supervisor and Small Boat mechanic while in the Middle East, onboard USCGC Monomoy. I did pollution investigation and environmental response at Marine Safety Unit Duluth, MN. I was also working on qualifications to become a qualified law enforcement officer to do boardings at one point, but I could never stick to just one thing. There was never any follow through or completion of these shortsighted ambitions I had. I thought I was truly a “lifer”. But I wasn’t happy, I knew I was smarter than turning a wrench, but all my paths were dead ends within the CG. If I wanted to change rates, I would’ve taken a hit in rank so I chose to continue to move up in the world of Machinery Technician (MK). I finally landed my dream unit coming back from the Middle East, USCGC Healy. I was told it was going to be a career killer for me, and in hindsight, they were absolutely right but for the wrong reasons. By February 2008, I was on the verge of making MK1 (E-6), my life was lined up for me as a “Career Coastie”, but things started to get out of control with my mental health and it broke me.
I’ve always dealt with depression during deployments, it was always attributed to Seasonal Affective Disorder which has the same effect on a person when the sun never sets. When you’re in the areas of the world say Antarctica or the Arctic, where the sun never sets, it starts to get to you. So I’d go in to the Corpsman, get on anti-depressants and then experience now what I realize was a manic episode, I’d promptly go off the meds, and I would cycle all over again. These unmanaged issues over the course of 6 years cost me advancements within the CG, and other opportunities that would’ve allowed me to become a much better Coastie. Finally in February 2008, I was diagnosed with Bipolar. I lost it. I was scared. I couldn’t stand to face my comrades, I couldn’t face the reality, I definitely could not face the stigma, I couldn’t face the idea of not being trusted with a gun, or that my fellow Coast Guardsman would not be able to serve alongside me knowing that I was mentally unstable. I lived and breathed the Coast Guard, and I felt my world shatter with a simple diagnosis at 24. Without even allowing myself adequate treatment, I opted out of the CG the fastest way possible even though I still had 4 years left on my enlistment. I went straight to my Command within a week, and I got out under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) with an Honorable Discharge. This isn’t the story I tell most people. I always leave out the part of my mental illness diagnosis. It’s easier to blame the CG for kicking me out under an unju st archaic law, DADT, rather than saying that there was something wrong with my brain. I was discharged on April 30, 2008. I served exactly 6 years 29 days with 5 and half years of sea service, 6 months shy of receiving the Enlisted Cutterman’s Insignia, 1 day away from advancing to E-6. How the CG handled my discharge and how I was treated is a story unto its own. Turns out the Healy wouldn’t be my career killer, I was the one who killed my career.
I was suddenly thrust upon the civilian world, something everyone in the military dreams of happening one day, but for me, I was lost. I lost all structure, discipline, the financial stability, the comradery, everything that I solely depended upon for the first 6 years and 29 days of my adult life. I held myself together the best I knew how with my partner standing firmly beside me the whole way through it. I immediately enrolled at Cascadia Community College for Fall 2008, was later accepted to University of Washington Bothell (UWB) to pursue a degree in Conservation Restoration Ecology. I obtained this degree within four years and graduated in 2012 with a 2.8 GPA. Mental Illness is the easiest to blame for my ups and downs, the difficulty with getting out of bed, the lack of energy to turn in assignments, or even to show up for class. During my senior year at UWB, I was a rock star aside from my grades. By then I had an ADA accommodation which made life easier when having to skip classes to see my therapist or psychiatrist. I was very active in bettering my mental health, but by 2012, something happened that I never experienced before. I was given a new medication, and immediately went into a full blown manic episode that lasted almost a year. At school, I was incredible. I was the recipient of the University of Washington’s Women in Leadership Award for academic school year 2011-2012, received the Program of the Year Award for 2011-2012 from UW, was the president of the Gay Straight Alliance for the second year in a row, planned/organized/performed all outreach/solicited funds for a month long campaign on campus to address recent hate crimes, and managed a budget of well over $15,000 for our little club. I was maintaining 3.0 and above in all my classes, taking 5 classes (25 credits) with 3 labs during spring quarter of 2012. What people didn’t see was who I was at home. I was angry, destructive in my relationship, agitated, irritable, and just flat out mean to those I love and that meant the most to me. I was destroying my world from the inside out, but I had no clue because my mental illness presented me from seeing what was truly going on around me and who I had become.
View of Sleeping Lady Mountain from the office at Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery.
To me, everything was amazing. Everything fell right into place like it should have. I had been accepted to Evergreen State College to pursue a Masters in Environmental Studies for Fall 2012, as a professor once said “[I] was a force to be reckoned with”, and I knew it. . Then it all fell apart. I started destroying relationships that I had worked hard to forge for my future, I walked off of a pretty prestigious internship with the City of Bothell because my integrity was questioned after a week on the job and I couldn’t mentally handle criticism, I aced an interview with WA Department of Ecology’s Spill Response department only to be turned down due to me not having knowledge of their Area of Operation of Vancouver, WA (I lived on the north end of Lake Washington in a Seattle suburb). I was crushed. I laid in bed for 3 weeks. I immediately came off my manic high and plunged into a deep depression. I thought it was all over. This was June 2012. I continued to make some pretty erratic decisions that summer that almost cost me my long-term relationship. In the end, it cost me graduate school, my family, and any future prospects.
My self-worth at 28 was null. I had convinced myself that I didn’t matter. On a starry night in August of 2012, I took 60 pills. I have a science degree – I understand the implications of 60 pills in the correct combination will essentially end one’s life. I woke up the next morning delirious, helped my partner with a grocery shopping list, and went back to sleep. I woke again later in the day coming to realization that my plan did not work. I had to do damage control. I texted my partner what I had done and that she needed to take me to the hospital immediately. I walked into the ER with the blood pressure of a coma patient, and absolutely surly. The doctors could not explain why or how I was alive. I was angry that my suicide “intent” did not work. It was not an “attempt”, I did exactly what I was supposed to, but my body rejected my theory, and thus I wound up in VA Puget Sound Psych Ward for 5 days. I was able to talk myself out of the ward, saying that I was fine, putting on a show so I could get out. Looking back, I should’ve been there for a month, at a minimum. I was released from the psych ward with the exact same medications I was admitted on, put on the VA’s High Risk list, and immediately took off to WI for 4 months abandoning my partner and our two boys.
Ever since I got out of the CG, I was under the continuous care of a psychiatrist. I was able to make the right decision for seeking out a counselor and psychiatrist in WI. That was the only thing I held onto and made sure I continued self-care. I understood the implications of what I had done attempting suicide, but to this day I have no idea why I’m alive. I’m not religious person. I don’t believe in a creator. But whatever happened to me that night…I realized I survived for a reason and I was going to work like hell to get myself back on track. Finally, after over a year of spiraling out of control in both directions, I saw the light. I had the correct medication combination and the pieces all fell back into place. That’s when I came to the realization that going to WI was a mistake, and was not where I was supposed to be, so I headed back to WA to be with my partner and our two children.
Snowshoeing tour of hatchery grounds with supervisor, Julia. February 2016
After graduation, I spent 3 years doing what I felt was absolutely nothing with my life. I worked odd summer jobs here and there, too afraid to get an actual job because of my diagnosis. I didn’t just have Bipolar Disorder, I WAS the Bipolar Disorder. It overtook who I was. My identity was of mental illness, I was too paralyzed to do something that required responsibility. I completed a lot of projects at home – mastering the art of hand painting letters on to signs, mastering the art of pallet creations, I taught myself to bake – I even opened up a made-to-order pie business called Healy’s Pies. Summer of 2015, a friend tapped me to be her head baker at a local restaurant. After 4 months in the position, I started to feel pieced back together, like a whole person again. I felt normal enough to take on the world. I found a weird, little ad on Craigslist offering an Information and Education Assistant Position with US Fish and Wildlife Service through Mt Adams Institute VetsWork program. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I did know that I was ready to face the world again and no longer allow myself to be a burden of my own mental illness. I was no longer going to allow myself to be defined by bipolar disorder II with mixed episodes. It’s just something I have, like a manageable toothache.
Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery visitor sign in log. Very interesting comments.
My self-worth is now of economic value. I have always had the skills – the professionalism, the integrity, the devotion to be a dependable employee. But once I lost myself after that Dept. of Ecology interview, it took me years to realize that if I do not find myself to be of value, I then believe that no one, including an employer, will not find me of value also. Fortunately, I landed this gig as a VetsWork AmeriCorps Intern with USFWS at a hatchery in WA. I’m worth something to someone, to an agency, to a nonprofit, to other people. I’m valued. I am no longer an unemployed disabled veteran statistic. I’m now a contributor to my community, to society as a whole. I have worth.
1.2 million Spring Chinook released into Icicle Creek April 2016
Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery hosted the Special Olympics in March 2016
I’ve fallen in love with fish, specifically salmon. I teach children and adults all about salmon. I’ve led and assisted in a number of programs with the I&E Dept. at the Complex’s 3 hatcheries, and have assisted the Conservation Office with ongoing studies doing collection of field data. I’ve been open and honest with my direct supervisor at US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and she’s helped me through some of my toughest obstacles of easing into the work place after what I’ve put myself through over the last few years. She has been an amazing mentor to me, and I literally could not ask for someone better. I’m already making plans for grad school again, this time possibly in natural resources with a focus in fisheries and wildlife management.
Teaching high schoolers about Fish Health during Kids in the Creek. May 2016
Teaching macro invertebrates to 5th graders from the Entiat School District during Entiat Outdoor Skills Days. June 2016
I can’t describe how amazing my internship has been thus far, so I’ve included a few photos to give an idea of what’s been going on around here. I can say for sure that my photography skills are back to up to par like the time I wanted to be a professional photographer. I never imagined I’d be in the place I am today, both mentally and physically. The last few years were pretty dark, but I’ve managed to pull through. I never dreamed of teaching the salmon life cycle to hundreds of school children, or building a soil science curriculum from scratch for 6th graders, or installing a 2400 sqft monarch butterfly/pollinator garden right out in front of the hatchery with over 350 native plant species, but here I am and I’m rockin it. I look out my window and gaze upon this garden that’s become an important part of our hatchery tour to stress the fact that USFWS is more than just fish, I look out there and I smile because I did that. It was me. The economic value of my self-worth is immeasurable, but I see it reflecting back at me from this garden every single day.
Fish dissection and weighing of gonads with the USFWS Mid-Columbia River Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office for the ongoing maturation study. June 2016
Enumerating of fertilized, wild steelhead eggs at Winthrop National Fish Hatchery.
Beaver on display at Winthrop National Fish Hatchery. I helped trap it. June 2016
The area of the future monarch butterfly garden. May 2016
Monarch garden with plants installed. Not quite finished. A 4’W x 155’L gravel path is yet to be put in and the rest of the mulch to be laid down. June 2016
Biggest Fish of the Day – 11lb fish caught at Winthrop Kids Fishing Day. June 2016
Heather, thank you for an honest blog full of hope for your future. It’s hard for many to post about their mental health and the challenge to find a place in the world. I, and many others, face challenges as well and your honesty will help many. It sounds like you have found the perfect place to live your future. The butterfly garden sounds fantastic. ❤️
Your story topped off my hope tank! Thank you for your honesty! Your story relates to many veterans and civilians alike. You should be very proud of yourself and the incredible work you are doing!
Spread that hope all over the place!