PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
Hello! My name is Erica, and if you really knew me, you’d know that I’ve been going through a lot lately. Depression, anxiety, weight gain (and not a lot of weight loss), three new jobs in one new town, and a pretty devastating haircut (I don’t know who needs to hear this, but never cut your hair when you’re sad!). It’s not all downer stuff though, I have a ficus I have managed to keep alive and a therapist I really like (who told me not to cut my hair… but I didn’t listen). Sometimes balancing everything can get pretty overwhelming and isolating. It’s so easy to forget that other people, including those who work right next to you, are also struggling.
That’s why Challenge Day was so impactful for me. It helps people learn to recognize internal and external social and emotional issues and pressures. That’s a lot to process in six and a half hours with a room full of strangers. But that is exactly what Staff Sgt. Andrew Tello, 21st Medical Group training manager, who attended a Challenge Day event as a teen, wanted to share with Peterson Air Force Base.
“People are working to the bone and doing everything that they can because the mission’s gotta get done,” he said. “But sometimes, for me, it’s like what is the cost?”
That cost can sometimes be a decrease in resiliency: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Which is why events like this are so important in building reserves up and establishing meaningful connections with other people. But it’s awkward to go and ask strangers to be your friend. That kind of communication doesn’t typically happen. Even I was hesitant to join in at the beginning of the day, preferring to sit in the bleachers and take notes on what was happening like a glorified anthropologist. I watched this group of more than 100 strangers drop their guard and ‘get weird,’ the facilitators joked, in a short amount of time. They had created their own safe little ecosystem that I felt uncomfortable breaking into. Obviously I was just creating a reason for further self-isolation. But that changed during one of the bathroom breaks.
While we were talking, the general consensus about how we all felt so far was super uncomfortable. Then one voice piped up and said: “That’s how I felt too, but now I’m okay with it.” That’s such an empowering thing, being comfortable with being uncomfortable. So I grabbed a nametag, found a chair, and joined a ‘small group family.’ We learned a lot about one another in an exercise called ‘if you really knew me,’ where we got two minutes of uninterrupted time to talk about ourselves. And let me tell you I met some of the strongest people in that tiny circle, dealing with things that would crush me: the deaths of parents and best friends, strained marriages and relationships, personal illnesses, single parenthood —and that was just twelves minutes of sharing in one group. It was my favorite event of the day.
In order to prepare content for the first-ever Challenge Day presented on a military installation, the program didn’t need to shift the focus much from the core material. Challenge Day Executive Director Laura Chavez pointed out that people ultimately share a lot of common experiences.
“It was powerful to hear all of the Airmen’s stories” she said. “To be here with them and share a little bit of compassion and empathy for the work they’re constantly doing and the struggle… It empowered me to continue these conversations.”
And it’s the importance of understanding other people’s experiences, as well as processing your own, that’s the focal point of the activity called ‘Crossing the Line.’ In this activity, a facilitator reads situations out loud and if it applies to you or someone you know, like losing a family member to violence or if you know someone who has considered suicide, you cross a line on the floor. By crossing that line, you get the opportunity to process your own trauma as well as physically see that you are not alone in experiencing what has happened.
When they called out “Cross the line if you are proud of who you are,” I stopped. I struggle with self-acceptance and genuinely didn’t know how to answer that. I thought about who I have been and who I am now and I was surprised to find that, yes, I am proud of who I am. And I started to cry. But I wasn’t self-conscious because everyone else was crying (and I had made sure to put on waterproof mascara). People throughout the auditorium were laughing, crying, hugging, and connecting.
But the military adds extra stressors that don’t always afford people the time to attend events like this and create those connections. Challenge Day facilitators Trish Bruno and Kevin Synarski said they want you to know that someone will always be there, without fail.
No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve gone through, someone understands. They say, “Things are temporary a lot of the time. It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, hard to wake up each day and say that you’re okay, but keep pushing and remember that you’re doing the best you can.”
And they’re right. When I was active duty and suicidal, I thought that I was doing my best, but I wasn’t taking time for myself and going to therapy. I wasn’t processing what was happening to me. I wasn’t talking about it. I pushed it down and figured it would go away. And that’s not how things work (surprise, surprise). So please take the time to heal yourself. Because as Laura Chavez says, “Your story matters and your story is needed. It’s going to help you as an individual and it’s going to help others. So please tell it. We’re here to listen.”