Depression – The Silent War

I have really debated the past couple of days on whether to write this or not. It’s personal and deep, and involves taking a journey down a road that although familiar, isn’t a pleasant one to travel. But I am a traveling man, and not all roads are easy to travel down.

Depression. Depending on who you speak to, you will get different responses regarding this word. Even within the last decade, my own personal thoughts and opinions regarding depression have changed.

Why am I writing this? Don’t I usually choose topics that are a little easier and pleasant to absorb? Yes, but I also dedicate this blog site to impacting those near and far and trying to positively influence those who read it.

This particular topic and blog entry has been on my mind constantly for the past two days. For those of you who don’t know, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 2016, which led to my early retirement from the United States Air Force after sixteen years active duty. Part of having MS is trouble falling asleep. Because I have trouble sleeping, I was prescribed a sleeping medication recently. This particular medication has caused me to have extremely vivid dreams, none of which have been great dreams.

I will skip the details of the dream I had two mornings ago, but immediately upon waking, I took the contents and overall theme of the dream, as a prompt to write this and hopefully inspire others to share their own stories.

I’m not a doctor, a psychologist, psychiatrist, or mental health professional. I have zero textbook experience on the subject of depression. What I do have however, is years of hands-on practical knowledge, experience, and coping mechanisms used to deal with this silent killer.

I call depression a silent killer for many reasons. Almost more times than not, those who deal with depression will keep silent about it. For different reasons, they’re ashamed, and don’t want it to become evident to those around them, let alone themselves. These silent victims walk through their daily routines, wearing masks and hiding the pain they feel inside.

I am no stranger to wearing masks. For years, I became an expert at changing them often, and creating different ones for various occasions in life. I have never been one that is talented in the area of hiding facial expressions. Those around me could usually tell how I felt inside by the way I looked on the outside. So I created masks. I portrayed a smile on the outside while my heart and soul screamed on the inside.

Many times over the past years, I’ve talked about silent warriors fighting silent battles, and the battlefield being hidden within the four walls of their home or within their minds. They’re fighting these silent battles in a silent war, and if they make it through the night and into the next day, they’re winning. I’ve talked about this often and it’s so true.

When I was in the military, depression wasn’t something people talked about very much. The perception was there, especially in my career field and carrying a weapon, that any sort of mental or emotional health problem was a career killer. So you ended up having so many kill themselves on the inside to save their careers. With a rise in mental health awareness programs to combat Post Traumatic Stress and Suicide, the stigma has started to be shunned out of most units. Those who were in positions that did nothing but support the stigma mentioned above, have found themselves either getting with the program and following suit with other leaders, or being hidden in places where they will have minimal influence and impact on others. Good!

It’s a hard place to be when you’re standing in a room full of people, only to feel completely and utterly alone. For those who have never been surrounded but feel an intense loneliness and emptiness, it’s hard to fathom. To be surrounded by happiness and light, but feel as though you’re standing in a dark corner, is excruciating. To want nothing more than to break and scream at the top of your lungs, but thinking you can’t because they’re depending on you to be the happy person you always present yourself to be, is nothing short of painful. It’s like being stung over and over by the same bee.

Many think that someone who is depressed is suicidal. Not true at all. Someone could be in such a state of loneliness, sadness, and emotional despair, they don’t want to continue. They lay down at night praying they won’t wake up, unable to fathom another day in pain. But they’re not suicidal. They just want their pain to go away. Imagine the most excruciating toothache. Everything you tried to do to make the pain go away, failed and you’re left walking around with this pain that no one can see but only you can feel. Wouldn’t you do anything, including the removal of the tooth, to make the pain subside?

If you’re reading this and can relate, I’m here to tell you there is hope. I can also tell you that you can think all the happy and positive thoughts in the world, and it isn’t going to work. Why? Because that’s not you and that’s not how you were wired. And you know what else? That is okay!

I started this post by telling you I am not a doctor and have zero professional experience in the case of mental and emotional health. But I have experience, and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here writing this for you today. I’m going to talk about things I’ve done to help in my next entry. It might just save you hundreds of dollars or another long period of pain and darkness. Maybe you won’t have to wear that mask so much. If none of the above, at least you will know that there’s another person fighting alongside you and cheering for your victory.

Walking Amongst Giants

Many of you who have kept up on my blog posts and who have gone further to check out my website, www.patriotimages.org, know that I am now heading into the second year of a project titled, “Faces of Veterans.”

The project, now turned into more of a journey, is focused on traveling across New York State and photographing as many of the 838,000 military veterans living within the state. Last year, over the span of ten months, we traveled to nine different NY counties and photographed approximately 1300 veterans and their guests. It has made a tremendous impact not only on the veterans and their families, but on me as well. So much, that I decided to pick it back up in 2020 and label it “Season Two.”

During Season Two, I am taking some of the feedback I received in 2019. Many viewers of the project expressed their interest in getting to know the veterans more personally. So this year, through the use of audio and video interviews, as well as photos, I am focusing on the more personal side of veterans and their lives.

Today was the first of what I hope to be many interviews. I met with a ninety-six year old WWII veteran named Mario in Lake George, NY. Mario was drafted after Pearl Harbor and became an Army medic. He spent eleven long months in Germany before returning home to his family. One of the things that I took away from today was his statement about why he joined.

“After the attack on Pearl Harbor, we had to do something. We couldn’t let this happen again. There wasn’t a man in my age group at the time who didn’t want to do whatever they could so this wouldn’t happen again.”

Mario “Doc” Mazzeo, WWII Veteran, United States Army

We live, breathe, and walk amongst giants. Mario’s generation, coined “The Greatest Generation,” is sadly a generation of brave American men who are passing away. There aren’t a lot of them left. Just several weeks ago, fighting infection, Mario was sent home from the hospital under hospice care. Thanks to his family by his side, his strong will to keep going, and his perseverance, Mario was full of energy and humor this afternoon when we spent a few hours together in his home.

Mario (left) and myself (right)

May God bless our men and women in uniform. May we never forget their sacrifices and their service to this great nation. May we honor them, their legacy, and forever remember that freedom is always a generation away from extinction.

Thank you Mario and family for such a great afternoon, for allowing me into your home, and sending me home a rich man with a full heart.

What is, a “Traveling Man?”

“One travels more usefully when alone, because he reflects more.”

Thomas Jefferson

I, like most people, enjoy traveling. Since my days in the military, I haven’t traveled to a foreign country; but I enjoy traveling within the United States, and even here at home within New York State. I enjoy traveling with my family, but there’s something about traveling alone that really clears the mind and refreshes the soul.

Most of the local traveling I do is during the months when snow and ice isn’t slowing me down and limiting me to distance. I enjoy driving up into the Adirondack Mountains, taking a scenic drive along Lake Champlain into Ticonderoga, along the back roads of Saratoga and Washington Counties, and occasionally crossing the border into neighboring Vermont. If it’s a nice cool day, I enjoy the windows down and breathing in the country air.

Many probably come to this site because they’re looking for travel photos and a blog about traveling to different destinations. Oh, but a man or woman can be a traveler, even if they never board a plane. You can be quite the extensive traveler and never leave your own home. Destinations don’t always have to be places that flash across a screen in an airport, or cities and towns printed on a sign on the side of a highway. They don’t have to be white, sandy beaches or snowcapped mountains.

I travel on a weekly basis and seldom leave my local area. Sometimes the most worthwhile trips are the ones where I’m alone. Many of my greatest trips where I discover the most, are done without leaving my house.

Like Thomas Jefferson stated, one who journey’s alone spends more time reflecting. I spend a lot of time in thought; thinking about the present and also the things to come. While I believe I have no control over tomorrow, I am convinced there are things I can do to help shape it. I can do my best this very moment to live a decent life, to love those around me, to be kind to both stranger and friend, show compassion, be humble, and more.

What is, a “traveling man?” In my case, it’s a person who is always exploring; not just the world around them, but also within themselves. It’s a person who is always moving forward, never desiring to go backwards and having to retrace their steps. It’s a person who is on a constant journey to be better tomorrow than they are today.

Travel wisely my friends.

Friends

“Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend – or a meaningful day.”

Dalai Lama

It’s been somewhat of a rough start to the new year. I am sure many can relate because life continues and things happen, regardless of the pages of a calendar turning. As I have written in previous posts, you can’t experience true joy unless you know true sorrow.

I have been trying to think over the past several days on how I was going to write this. I’ve laid awake in bed, wishing I could fall into a deep sleep, but continuously reminded of past memories; many of them 20+ years old. I lost a friend last week. Sure, I’ve lost many people in my life over the years, but this one just feels so much different. Taken too soon for many of us here left behind, God must have considered his work here complete and called him home. The death of my friend is a harsh but valuable reminder that life is so short and we only have one shot to get it right.

I want to talk about Matt a little bit and share some memories. When I have been laying in bed unable to fall asleep, scrolling through social media and seeing a photo of him and his wife, or just thinking about his untimely death, I am reminded of so many funny memories. I’m reminded of how we used to bike ride around the area we grew up, he would stop and show me all the local “haunted” houses. We would stand there on the side of the road hoping that something creepy would happen. It never did and on we went. I’m reminded of the trails we use to cut in the woods, and how he once pointed out an American Indian burial ground. I remember watching professional wrestling with him and we would pretend we were the wrestlers. I recall his love for CB radios, how he introduced me to them, and how he took me to meet people I only knew from the airwaves. One of the funniest memories I have is when he went camping with my Dad and I in Indian Lake, NY. In the middle of the night my Dad woke us up and said there was a black bear outside the tent. Matt woke up startled and shouted, “Ooooh! Ooooh! Ooooh!” I don’t know if he thought there was a bear in the tent.

Matt was always a bit crazy. He was fun to hang out with. Matt was also one of the only friends I’ve ever had growing up that would give you the shirt of his back. Yeah, we all know nice people. Generous people. Matt went beyond that. He was genuinely a nice person.

A couple of years ago when I retired from the Air Force, I moved back to my hometown, and Matt and I connected a few times. Busy schedules and families of our own didn’t allow us the time to see each other often, but when we did, it was like I had never left the area. We had grown up but there was always the silly jokes and phrases we used to say as teenagers. One night when my wife and I were having dinner at a local restaurant, Matt walked in to pick up dinner for his family. He saw my wife and I sitting there and paid for our entire meal. That’s just who Matt was.

I had the opportunity to take family photos for him within the past couple of years. As you can imagine, from what I’ve already written, the shenanigans continued for two and half hours while taking his family’s pictures. It was a great time and good for the soul. That’s who Matt was.

Matt passed away unexpectedly at the age of forty-two.

Fly high Matt. Thank you for your friendship, the laughs, and great memories you left so many with. You will be missed and I look forward to seeing you again.

Who Am I? Part 2

Wow! What a week in world news it has been. Once again, as I have written in other blog entries, we are a nation divided and one doesn’t have to look very far to see it. Open up your Facebook newsfeed, and if you have a diverse mixture of friends, you’ll see the debating back and forth over the bombing and killing of an Iranian general.

I’m not here to talk about that however. I want to continue and conclude on a top I started at the very end of 2019. I want to answer the question that I and so many are faced with at different times in our lives. Who are we? Who am I? How do I want to start this new year? Who do I want to be in 2020?

Like I wrote in the first part of this discussion, I am not big into New Year’s resolutions. I think they tend to fizzle out after a couple of weeks when we realize they just aren’t fun anymore. The beginning of a new year is good though because it sometimes forces us to recognize areas within ourselves that need improvement. Some people create goals for health reasons, while others create goals to try and better themselves in another way. Some just use January 1st as a benchmark for something. For example, I shaved what facial hair I had left on December 31st, and started growing my beard fresh the following morning. It’s a benchmark for me to look back on and see growth over time. There are other things I am using January 1st as a benchmark for however, to see growth over time.

While I don’t have a resolution for 2020, I do have a goal in mind. Overall, I want to be a better me than I was in 2019. I want to look back at the end of this year, and besides having a glorious beard to gaze upon in the mirror, I want to see personal growth. I want to take more time this year to reflect on life, to spend time with family and friends, grow as a person, and take the time be by myself and rejuvenate personally. As a photographer, and it’s probably weird to read this, but I want to hold the camera less. I want to see less through the lens and more through my eyes at the moment. I want to embrace each moment of 2020, whatever it brings, and use those moments as stepping stones to a better me.

For all of you reading this, and myself as well, 2020 will bring many things. There will be victories and defeat, life and death, happiness and sadness, as well as laughter and sorrow. It’s inevitable these things will exist, just as it is inevitable that we will look back on the last day of this year and reflect once again. So who am I? I am not the version of myself I would like to tomorrow, but I am grateful I am not the same person I was yesterday. I am who I am today, striving each day to be a better version.

Happy New Year to all those who read this, and may this year bring many lessons and blessings to each of you!