Andrew trying to keep pace with his son Luke
While I was stationed in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, my then 3-year-old son, Luke, would end each video that he, his baby sister and his mom sent me with the same five words: “I want my dad back.” He missed his dad, and there was no way to measure how much I missed all of them. Given the technology of the times and my remote location, there was no immediate way to respond and let him know that I would have done anything to close those miles between us and give him exactly what he was asking for. How ironic it was, then, that a few months after I’d returned home, with the miles between us gone, he shared this same sentiment as we were driving to day care one morning. “I want my dad back,” he said, looking at me in the rearview mirror. It was a familiarly heart-wrenching refrain, but in that moment, it meant something very different—to both of us. And, in an instant, the uncluttered, and unfiltered mind of a four-year-old told me everything I needed to know: That while the physical distance between us was no longer there, my ability to be present and live in the moment was thousands of miles away.
Sitting there after I’d dropped him off that day I tried to grasp how I’d gone from a dad who’d have given anything in the world to be with him to literally pretending I was asleep to avoid going outside to play. Now, I look back and realize that beyond what I’d experienced in combat the truth is that throughout my life—before, during and after my time in the military—I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression. And, not unlike millions of others, from all walks of life, I struggled alone and in silence. That’s because until recently I never would have imagined I could share that sentiment openly. Words such as “broken,” “weak” and “risky” were associated with anyone willing to be vulnerable enough to share their struggles with these feelings and what they were experiencing. In fact, acknowledging the realities of these challenges in many cases was a career-ending choice. However, in recent years, through a combination of science, dialogue and even tragedy, we’ve come a very long way. The strength and courage of individuals and the collective effort of so many organizations have positioned all of us to better understand how we can make a difference and support the one in four of us who face the realities of depression and anxiety every day—in our lives at home and in our workplaces.
Author and speaker Brené Brown said, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable.”
It’s time to bring these discussions out of the shadows and have a truly open dialogue about what is certainly one of the most critical health epidemics of our time. And I absolutely believe that SHRM, our members and the 115 million workers across the world who we serve need to be a part of that conversation.
I’ve worked for SHRM and within our HR community these last five years, and I’m often reminded of the culture of servant-leadership that I was surrounded by during my military career. I so admire the selfless service that I see in those who serve in this profession, as well as in my colleagues who work to serve them through SHRM. I’m truly optimistic that we can build on what we already know: Truly inclusive cultures are built on understanding and compassion as much as they are built on accessibility. By building these workplace cultures, we can truly give people the license they need to seek the support they wholeheartedly deserve while simultaneously serving in an impactful way within our workforce.
My sincere hope is that all of us can strive to be a bit more vulnerable this May during Mental Health Awareness Month. And, as we recognize the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, let us reflect on the ways in which we can embrace our fellow workers who bring these “invisible wounds” to our workplace every day. We’ve certainly come a long way, but we do have some road left to travel. As do I. I’d like nothing better than to tell you that I’m cured of my PTSD and of my depression. I’m not. Yet, through support, holistic practices, my family and purpose-driven work, I will continue to grow alongside the millions of other Americans who face these same challenges- well beyond our military-veteran workforce.
Recently, I was driving with my now teenage son, who that morning years ago had looked at and through me in the rearview mirror. Like many of his teenage peers, he’s facing some struggles of his own. When he’s wondering how he’s going to manage getting through the week, the day or even the moment, I remind him that he’s not alone, and how much I owe him as he set me on my journey to healing some 12 years ago with those unforgettably poignant five words: “I want my dad back.”
I’m working on it—every single day! And, most importantly, I’m not alone.