Mental Health: Another Shipmate has Fallen

(Silverdale, Washington; Oct. 29, 2020) – Today’s column was supposed to be about the minor success I’ve had with my first novel, Proud Lion, and my plans for book 2, The Norfolk Murders.

Sadly, the tragic death of one of my shipmates from the real-life USS Ponce (LPD 15) upended my plans.

I served with Brian Hamilton aboard USS Ponce (LPD 15).  Brian was a machinist’s mate working down in engineering, and I was the ship’s media specialist.

I met him when I was down the mains spaces (engine rooms) of the Proud Lion photographing their work.  I became quite popular with him and the other engineers because I never minded wading into their 100º+ world of noise, steam, steel, and grease.  They counted me as an honorary member of the engineering team because I not only covered them as much as I did the rest of the ship, I also made sure they always got copies of the photos to send home.

Brian and I began to really get to know each other when, while sitting under an air vent cooling down for a moment after lighting off a boiler, I asked in passing if he happened to be related to Alexander Hamilton.  I was just making conversation and didn’t expect him to say yes.  However, it turns out he was distantly related to Alexander Hamilton!  Brian was tickled pink (to use an old Southern expression) that someone actually knew who Hamilton was.  As it turned out, we also had a decedent of Brig. Gen. Anthony Marion, another hero of the American Revolution, aboard Ponce at the same time.  Those two had been aboard ship together for over two years and never knew their shared family heritage until I came aboard and figured it out.  They were both excited to discover that connection and got to know each other a bit better from them on.

Military life means change.  Brian and I went our separate ways to new assignments in 2012.  The miracle of Facebook allowed me to stumble across him again in 2017 as I retired from active duty.  I embarked on a year-long road trip that allowed me to visit all 50 states and two Canadian provinces.  Catching up with Brian at his home in Kentucky was at the top of my list.  We spent several hours at the National Corvette Museum.  Half the day was spent talking about cars, half was spent laughing about old times.  We ended up speaking a lot via social media and deepening our recently rekindled friendship over the past couple of years.

Brian’s life took a dark turn a little over a year ago.  Like me, he too struggled with depression and anxiety, but his wife’s increasingly abusive behavior broke his heart, and he was devastated when they separated.  Shortly after that, he lost his job (I think COVID had a hand in his unemployment).  Like so many veterans suffering similar personal tragedies, he started drinking heavily.  A few months ago, he told several of us he’d entered rehab and even found a new job as a dishwasher.  That, by itself, is not a bad thing; it’s honest work, after all.  However, being unable to get work in his actual field was simply another event that, I now know, further fractured the emotional foundation of his life.

Brian committed suicide this week.  I learned about it yesterday on Facebook.  In a supreme irony, after spending eight months in near solitary confinement since I’m single and live alone, yesterday was the first day I could go back to work at my ‘other’ studio:  Starbucks.  I was excited to be back among humanity and interact with people beyond talking to the check-out clerk at the base Commissary.  I had planned to continue editing The Norfolk Murders and then work on book 5.

Instead, I spent about four hours sitting in shock, just surfing the internet.  I’m moving to Tennessee next May, and Brian used to live in Kentucky.  For the past two months he and I were chatting about all the things we wanted to do together once I’m settled in the Murfreesboro area.  His home in Kentucky was close enough to Murfreesboro that weekend trips were entirely feasible.

Now, I’ll visit his grave when I go to Kentucky again.

I myself survived a suicide attempt in 1998 that put me in the hospital for three days.  I know the pain of a black hole that, no matter how much you try, you simply cannot expel from the center of your life.  That kind of unending, intense emotional pain skews and warps the ‘calibration’ on the very sensors and standards our minds use to judge our place and worth in the world.  We all live alone in our own heads, dependent on our senses and world view to provide context and meaning.  When extreme, long-term pain warps those senses and distorts that world view, we might not even know it since we live inside it. Sadly, no amount of external evidence or support is guaranteed to overcome such a damaged perspective.

Suicidal people are also the greatest actors in the world (trust me; I kept everyone from having even a hint of what I was planning in 1998 until I was in the hospital after having accidentally survived it—long story).  While many of us know the ‘traditional’ signs of suicidal ideation (for example, giving away possessions), suicidal people are actually very good at covering their tracks.  They’re often already convinced they’re a worthless burden, so they can go to extraordinary lengths to ensure no one suspects anything in order to keep from being even more of a burden.

Unfortunately, that trait often adds an additional level of grief and sorry to those left behind.  I learned long ago (from having done it all myself) that, no matter how well I do know someone, I won’t necessarily see the signs of a potential suicide if they don’t want me to.  Those who don’t have my level of ‘inside experience’ with suicide often feel great guilt for ‘not doing more.’  Odds are, they were being the best friend/loved one they could be, and the deceased simply did his or her best to keep the truth hidden.

I am beyond wondering now what else 2020 will throw at us.  Aside from China’s gift to the world going viral, I’ve lost two grandmothers this year (one just two weeks ago), cut off my best friend after his wife tried turning her abusive terror on me, fought and won the ‘Keyport Wars’ against toxic leadership that directly threatened me and turned my department at Keyport into a virtual prison where no one had any autonomy, and spent the aforementioned eight months mostly alone.  Fortunately, I have my work as a writer and success in publishing my first novel.  I have a large network of friends and family I can call and talk to, and a mental health network I’ve developed that I have relied on a few times for emergency help.  Even in our altered state of living, I’m doing quite well.  Not everyone has my gifts of support and meaningful work.

One tragedy here is the reality that no amount of mental health support will end the scourge of suicide until our culture fully repeals the stigmas we still cheerfully attach to unseen injuries of the mind and heart.  It’s easy to sympathize with a man missing a leg, or a blind woman making her way in the world.  The real test of one’s humanity is being able to accept that many of us fight something unseen but violently real.  Even as an open advocate for mental health, I still get so many truly well intentioned (but utterly clueless) people telling me to just “give it to God and I’ll find peace,” or to “meditate and stop thinking so much,” or to “just get over it,” that I want to slap them upside the head in frustration.  If mental health were that easy to change, I’d have done it decades ago and had a much easier life.  (Besides, I’ll ask in return, who’s to say that God isn’t the one providing the counselors, meds, network of friends to talk to, etc.?)

Those who have not had the support I had in my own fight with PTSD and its attendant ‘fun’ (much less possessing a confrontational streak like I do) might interpret such well-meaning ignorance for a rebuke (‘ignorance’ is used here in the literal definition of a lack of knowledge, and not the pejorative sense of insult).  When hit with such a dismissive, even callous statement (however accidental), often times the person clams up and stops trying to seek help.  The stigma remains like pernicious athlete’s foot that never quite heals, and another person dies…

Brian knew of my own mental health struggles, but, for whatever reasons he had, he chose not to reach out to me or anyone else.  I firmly believe it’s because he could not escape the belief that doing so would make him more of a burden to us whom he cared about.  I also believe he felt that reaching out would offer no hope of relief from the pain he was in.  I’m too experienced to blame myself with a ‘what could I have done better’ routine of self-flagellation.  I know I could do nothing more than I did, but I also know many others who are dealing with that type of guilt.  Not only will I never dismiss such feelings in others, I’m also always willing to help them process and move through it.

Brian Hamilton was my friend.  He was my shipmate.  He was my brother.  I will remember him kindly, and I will always speak well of him.  One day, in another world and another life, I will see him again.  Over time the joy of having had him in my life will eventually temper the sadness, leaving peace.  Grieving takes time, and we all have much to grieve this year.

If you are wrestling with depression, anxiety, PTSD, or whatever, please know that, for every two or three well-meaning people out there who might offer unhelpful or dismissive suggestions, there are many of us who get it.  I will not promise anything that can definitively end the pain because, frankly, my own pain has never ended.  However irrational it is, the core emotional reality I experience is despair, meaningless, and futility.  I cannot defeat this darkness, but I’ve learned how to live above it while accepting that it’s part of me.  While pain might not actually end, it is possible to find balance and live a thriving, successful life while such pain churns down deep.

Please don’t stop reaching out if you’re in a similar struggle.  I cannot promise success; but I can promise hope.  Those who have hope can thrive even while living with constant pain.

Brian Hamilton (left) and I with the USS Ponce’s (LPD 15) Quartedeck flags and some fragments of wood from the ship’s well deck at the National Corvette Museum in Kentucky. We were at the exhibit built over the site of a 2014 sinkhole that swallowed 8 historic cars. All 8 were recovered, but only two were fully restored (you can see the wreckage on display behind us). Bowling Green, Kentucky. (Nathanael Miller, 10 Dec. 2017)

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4 thoughts on “Mental Health: Another Shipmate has Fallen

  1. Hey, I’m Brian’s cousin (his mom, Nancy, was a Hardesty before marrying his dad), would you happen to have any of the photos you took of him in the engine room or working on the ship? Those would be so cool to see. And thank you, so much, for this tribute.

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    1. Nancy, please give me some time. I have over 10,000 images form Ponce alone (forget the rest of my career!) I will be seeking out Brian’s photos, but it’s going to take me some time to do so. However, it IS on my radar screen to get done after this tragedy. I hope your family finds peace in the memories of laughter, joy, and the fact he served our country with honor and enriched the lives of all of us who met him uniform.

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