Mental Health: Into the Volcano

Winter in Northern Utah

(Silverdale, Washington; Jun. 23, 2019) – I debated for a long time whether this column should go under “Travel” or “Mental Health,” but the mental health analogy won out.

However, that does not alter the fact that, last Saturday (June 15) I accidentally hiked right into an active volcano’s crater.

I know, I know—you’re wondering how in the name of John Q. Arbuckle can anyone accidentally end up hiking into an active volcano?! Volcanoes are rather large and tend to make themselves known, after all.

Well, that Saturday I drove out to Windy Point, the closest observation area to Mount St. Helens (and, despite her current somnolent status, Mount St. Helens remains quite active). I knew there were a few trails in the area, and I was eager to hit one or two as these trails are directly in the blast zone from the 1980 eruption. While hiking, I met a pair of folks who were going to Loowit Falls, and fell in with them. Loowit Falls is a glacier-fed system from the rim of the mountain. What the map did not make clear was that the Loowit Falls are inside the crater.

So, as we close in on the end of this four-mile hike (well, four miles one way), we realized we had entered the crater through the collapsed northern face of the volcano. We found the falls coursing down the western rim of the crater on our right. On our left was the massive lava dome that has grown in fits and spurts and slow extrusions since 1980.

Hiking across the blast zone right at the mouth of the eruption, and then entering the crater itself…well, it was truly awe-inspiring. Mount St. Helens blew up nearly 40 years ago. The landscape is still devastated and blasted clean of all but the most rudimentary of flora.

This trip also became the best metaphor for what I’m going through right now.

The northern face of Mount St. Helens was swelling as the magma chamber below filled. An earthquake on May 8, 1980, finally dislodged that mass of mountain, and, the entire north face of the volcano broke away and slid off (23 square miles of mountain moved at once in the largest landslide in recorded history). The landslide triggered the eruption because the magma chamber suddenly had no pressure on top of it. With nothing left to quell it, Mount St. Helens erupted mere seconds later, and the landscape is still recovering. The eruption killed 57 people and literally blasted nearby Spirit Lake clear out of its bed for several hours.

When I retired from the Navy in 2017, the ontological earthquakes began. I gave up the uniform, the UCMJ, the daily mission, and the demands of conforming to military etiquette. If you were following me in 2017 as I got near retirement, I talked about how destabilizing this transition already was, and how much I knew I needed to adapt. I knew I was entering a very volatile phase of life as I launched into the unknown, seeking to discover who Nathanael Miller is without the uniform. This is a place all military personnel must go at some point. Whether we’re in for four years or 20 years, we all have to face that moment of transition, and the longer we’re in the more profound and unsettling it is.

I said last week I now work in Keyport, Washington. I have a staff writer’s position in the front office of an operation in that lovely little town (and it is lovely; you need to see Keyport sometime!). When I got there, a situation that had been brewing for two years blew up. I had not been on board 60 days when everything went to hell and every trigger I have about instability, uncertainty, threat to safety (physical and political), emotional vulnerability…it was all hit at ONCE.

That event was the earthquake that caused the north face of the mountain to breakaway and slide off, releasing the internal pressure and leading me to experience an eruption of proportions I had deluded myself into not thinking possible.

No, my behavior has not been Emily Post. I have not reacted or acted in ways that are always appropriate, rational, or even respectful. I own that freely. But, for the first time in my life, I also don’t really care about how my behavior is perceived because I’m so sick of being abused and beaten up, however accidentally. I might have started caring, but my particular group’s leadership has, in the most elegant comedy of errors, managed to continue to strike me in all the wrong ways at all the wrong moments.

Despite the high-flown rhetoric about listening to people and acknowledging their humanity, our leadership has done everything to deflect responsibility for the problems they created. Despite my best efforts, I’ve been completely ignored…until last Monday (June 17).

On June 17, during an early morning meeting, my deputy group leader met with my immediate boss and I, and handed me a “Letter of Expectations” defining appropriate behavior after telling me she found some of my “words” and “actions” to be “disrespectful.” Now, this meeting might have been the start of a true reconciliation and “reset” for my relationship with leadership if, in addition to this guidance, she had then addressed the validity of my position, the reality of her own culpability as one of the leaders who created the problem, and thereby allowed us both to meet in the middle and start a new chapter.

Nope. I got an implied threat that a paper trail has now been started against me and that if I offend her or anyone again, official disciplinary action will be taken. The meeting was all about her, and it was implied to me that I need to Get Over It and move on. Then, in the kind of irony that only comes from those suffering the grossest hubris, as the conversation moved on she related a story about a car wreck in her teens, and how to this day she still flinches when someone changes lanes. After all, you can’t control it when a traumatic event repeatedly triggers a negative reaction years later, can you?

So…I’m supposed to “get over it” (my words to summarize), but she gets to claim grace for her foibles because, after all, traumas stick with you.

That was the most well-run, targeted, friendly, and amiable meeting that I have ever attended in which a leader fatally and irrevocably lost any hope of reestablishing a situation…and never even knew it. I used to be such a puppy dog, but this latest insult has hardened me to a point where I do not care to even try to be unhardened anymore. There is nothing she or our group leader can say anymore that I will listen to.

Mount St. Helens erupted in May 1980. Over the years she has erupted a few times since in smaller ways, but the landscape was permanently scorched, scarred, changed, and irrevocably altered by the blast of 1980.

In the same way the landscape of my psyche has been irrevocably changed by the blast I experienced this past winter, and this latest stupidity by my deputy group leader, however muted and subtle, was nothing but dropping a large explosive charge into the lava dome and cracking it, once again releasing the pressure that was holding back the magma and allowing it to erupt again.

I do not want anyone reading this to worry that I’m leading up to taking drastic, dangerous, and illegal actions against anyone at work. No, I am not. I am actually planning to keep my head down and just earn my paycheck until better opportunities arise and I can skedaddle while still taking care of my responsibilities to my daughter and, well, living the lifestyle I want to live.

However, there are a few legal avenues I can investigate, and I will. I am not expecting anything, but I will investigate and see if there are any remedies to this. Probably not.

What this has been is both a lesson for those in leadership to practice what you preach, put your money where you mouth is, and listen.

For me…the guy trying to find help to heal and finally move past the traumas I’ve experienced…this was but one more trauma. One more time I have been injured. My rational mind knows this situation is not a physical danger, but my heart also knows it has been wounded deeply again. I have finally learned to start reconciling those two disparate experiences and allow both to exist within me.

I have also found myself uncaring as to how others feel. I don’t give a damn how my deputy group leader feels, nor do I care to. As I said, for the first time I not only have no desire to reconcile and move on, I actually find myself refusing to even consider it. I am at the end of my rope. I am now dreading getting out of my car every weekday morning because I’m already tired of waiting for the next insult, the next upheaval, the next moment my trust is betrayed again.

First impressions count, and my first impression of this department and my group leadership was clearly not good. That impression has now been cemented into place by my leadership’s subsequent selfish actions. However, like all victims of trauma, this is, in the end, on me. That’s the bitch of it and where it stinks, but it’s reality. They can abuse all they want and ignore all they want. It’s on me to find my own way through it without injuring myself or losing my job until I have something else lined up.

I am still seeking a new counselor; hopefully that effort will meet success soon. Until then, however, at least I can go hike into a volcano now and then.

Mount St. Helens
Mount St. Helens seen from about two miles away at Windy Point.  (Nathanael Miller, June 15, 2019)

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