I recently promoted to the rank of Major in the U.S. Air Force and find myself in a state of reflection regarding my military career. I am bringing my active duty chapter to a close, and I cannot help but reflect on where I started 14 years ago.
I began working towards getting accepted into a service academy when I was 15. It is incredibly competitive, you have to be exceptional in every capacity to be accepted: grades, extracurriculars, demonstration of leadership potential through various organization. And even if accepted by the institution, you aren’t guaranteed a spot. You must get a nomination from a Senator or Representative from your home state to be accepted into the Academy.
By 17 I had been accepted into West Point, the Naval Academy, and the Air Force Academy (USAFA, pronounced “you-sah-fah”). At 18 I selected USAFA and left home for basic cadet training. The next four years of my life were such a blur of obligations and activity… as a cadet you are constantly being measured and scrutinized. I look back in awe of the girl who stood on silver footprints (a part of in-processing at USAFA) in the shadow of a literal mountain of responsibility. She leapt fearlessly into her military career, and I hope to channel that same courage as I leap to my next chapter.
I remember acutely how badly she, and I, wanted to contribute to “something greater than ourselves.” I remember running as a “four degree” (what freshman are called) along the white tiles (the only area we are allowed to be when transiting between the dorms and class) while looking up at the cadet chapel and just being overwhelmed with what I was trying to accomplish. It was all too much for me to wrap my mind around. Me? A cadet? A future officer in the U.S. Air Force? I hoped with all my heart I would rise to every occasion, make my family proud, and make something of myself.
Unlike some of my friends who loved their academy experience, I, in fact, was a terrible cadet. I struggled immensely. In a constant state of overwhelm, I went from being a straight A student to someone whose goal was to just pass. The pressure applied to you daily keeps you in a steady state of survival, never ahead, always slightly reactive. I did not flourish. I did not excel. I barely got by. When I look back now at this, I consider so many causal factors: I was away from home for the first time in my life, and it was miserable having no community or support structure around me. It was isolating… a total break in relational continuity. Conversely, my family had no idea what I was going through. Though many of them had served, they were enlisted and none had attended a service academy. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I had also given up my creative pursuits and in doing so turned away from and devalued who I was. Without my art to fill me with joy, I ran out, ran into a deficit, and further scraped by. At 18-22 I didn’t know who I was, what I liked, what I wanted, or what brought me to life. I barely knew how to care for myself; I only knew how to overextend to “prove myself” at every possible turn. I also found it nearly impossible to make friends in such a highly competitive, stratified, stressful environment. Relationships forged in that atmosphere are either ironclad or paper thin. My own relationship with myself deteriorated, and by the time I graduated in 2013 my mental health was the worst it had ever been.
Mental Health Self Portraits
There is a self-portrait I completed after getting to my first duty station which externalized the way I saw myself at 23, titled “This is What Depression Feels Like.” This would be the precursor to a painting I completed four years later after a deployment, titled “This is What Anxiety Feels Like.” I returned to my art after graduating, and in doing to returned to myself. I never abandoned my craft, or myself again.
My self-portrait on anxiety was featured at the 2020 Bossier Parish Community College Military Mental Health Art Show. Eighth Air Force would later release an article about my work, discussing my desire to normalize conversations and support around mental health. That article and my painting were shared in 2020 by the U.S. Air Force Facebook page to 2.9 million followers, receiving 4.1K likes. In all honestly, this was terrifying to me. I felt so vulnerable to share my art and struggles so publicly. And not everyone responded kindly on social media. But the conversations I had with my airmen, non-commissioned officers and fellow company grade officers afterwards erased all my insecurities. People were willing to share their struggles, seek help, and felt seen. As a leader, and as a human, it is so important to hold space for your personnel in this way. Any lingering nervousness I felt about sharing my work so publicly dissipated after I received an email from the Chief of Staff of the Air Force thanking me for my leadership.
Senior leaders in the Air Force encourage us to build our resilience, to seek out mental health resources, and to support one another through the stressors inherent to military life. But from such a high level, it can be hard to ensure the message and resources make it all the way down the “chain.” So, I do what I can from my lower position to normalize conversations around mental health and to share the resources available. Having gone through seasons of depression or anxiety, this matters deeply to me for the following reason: I have never been in a unit that did not have a suicide or suicide attempt.
For this reason, mental health is the first pillar of focus in my creative practice.
This was the first major milestone I met in fleshing out what I wanted to create and pursue within my fine arts business. My self-portraits have gained a life of their own, resonating with people I never knew I would meet. Both portraits are featured in the 2023 Air and Space Force Artisan Air streaming series, and my episode airs on 8 June 2023! In my episode I share all three focus areas of my creative practice (mental health, literacy, conservation), and start with where it all began: the self-portraits you see here.
I have had an incredible military career, and if I can openly talk about how I have struggled, sought help, and continued to move forward the better for it, then I hope to convey you can too.