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15 October 2022:

"Is drive NATURALLY a part of who you are or were you TAUGHT to have drive?" This was the question my new therapist (a black female officer, older, and has locs like me: WONDERFUL patient to therapist match for the state of mind I am in) asked me this past Tuesday during our second Psychotherapy session. My initial response was yes, as I’ve known myself as driven as far back as I can remember. The majority of the people I know see and recognize my drive. However, as I reflected and shared my core memories of my life to include my childhood, I now am starting to have second thoughts.

I shared with the therapist about being the oldest child of three. How when I went to school the other kids were not interested in playing with me so I would watch them play from a distance. I shared how when I became good at sports, the boys would play with me and would be my friend. I didn’t start having consistent girlfriends until the 5th grade. This was also when I had my first Black teacher who was also a woman. She celebrated me in front of the class after doing a project on "Oprah" for Black history month and after that, the other kids (to include girls) wanted me to help them with their projects and we started to form friendships. This was the year I FINALLY made the honor roll and preserved it until sophomore year of high school. I shared about the dynamic with my parents and how my mom was very strict on us with homework and everything else, as she held us to high standards so that we would, "not become a Black stereotype." After I decided to no longer play basketball after middle school and wanted to play tennis in High School (a sport I had never played before) my dad told me "You're not going to do nothing Kristin. You need to do something." I remember feeling the pressure and inspiration to make something of my life and help others. So much of what I knew of Black people was shown in a negative light. But that was not what I saw when I looked at my own family. That was not what I saw in myself. I didn't know any black people who were "like me" or were like what I wanted to become so I decided to be that for me, for my siblings and for anyone who could relate.

Fast forward to today, I am a Major in the USAF, working in an operational job that has several paths that can promote up to the General Officer ranks. I have a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, three certifications in technical communications, a graduated intern from a Lettered agency, experience where I’ve worked policy for the highest office in the country, deployed with people they make movies about, supported and led others through some of our world’s most tumultuous wars and global events, lived on three different continents, I've won award after award after award and more impressive than my own achievements and accolades is what I’ve been able to do for the people I've led. I’ve helped them win awards at all kinds of levels, find or see the meaning in their work and in themselves, helped them achieve educational goals and promotions. Advocated for them to get their needs met. Supported them in the hospital, at court, reenlistments, promotions, at funerals, births of children, birthdays. Cried with them in their moments of fear, shame, pain, disappointment and let them know they weren’t alone. The list goes on. And I LOVED it. I believed I was making a positive impact and a difference on the lives of others. I was serving others. That's why I chose the path I'm on and work the way that I do. But even still, I am met with, "you still have a lot more to prove!" Or "focus on pouring into others." What does this mean? What else do I have to do? What else do I or others like me have to do to be seen, to be acknowledged, to be considered, to be believed, to have a voice, to matter? I'm trying to understand but there's a barrier.

Day 1 of the intensive outpatient therapy, I experienced a FIRST in my lifetime. Out of my entire academic and Air Force professional career, I was the majority in the room. There were 10 patients, two therapists. Everyone in there was Black or Hispanic. The majority of the patients were BLACK WOMEN. I asked myself, "So this is where you can find us? Is this where we 'belong' in MENTAL HEALTH?" The thought and the reality angered me. I felt hopeless.

As I entered the therapy, I learned quickly that I was the only officer and the oldest out of our group of patients. While the reality was uncomfortable, I just remembered that I am here for me and that I need this therapy, so I fully was present and engaged in the experience. I chose to not succumb to the usual pressures I feel to be the first to speak up when things are quiet or help others. I let myself be TOTALLY broken. I shared about the traumas and stressors that brought me there. I cried when my body said to cry. I felt anxious when it said to be anxious. I held nothing back and let myself be and say what I really felt. At the end of the day, I was shocked by the feedback I received. One of the other patients said that the things I shared really resonated with her. Others agreed and said, "Kristin puts into words what I feel but don't know how to say for myself." "She has a way with words" I thought really? For most of my life my test scores, verbal feedback from others, and even some of my briefings at work have said the opposite. Could this be true?

Throughout the month of the four day a week therapy we were challenged but learned so much about ourselves in the process. Each morning we would talk about our mood, and it showed me that its ok to have a different mood each day; moods don’t define you or your abilities. We learned about thoughts that can "hook you" about, identifying our values, developing value-based goals and accepting change; but more deeply accepting ourselves as we ARE. Not our past or our future, but our present.

My favorite part of the group and what I felt to be the most life changing were the people and content shared within the group sessions. My fellow group members were a combination of Army and Air force

enlisted Airmen and Soldiers. The experiences they had were UNBELIEVABLE or believable depending on what reality you live in. Without disclosing specific details, themes of experiences shared were abandonment, feeling unlovable, feeling not beautiful, betrayal, sexual abuse, physical abuse, divorce, fighting, loneliness, incarceration, murder, homelessness, exhaustion, a repeated trend of toxic leadership, toxic work environment, and internal conflict of staying in the military or getting out. I was privileged in that I had the support of my leadership to not return to work until after my therapy. But several of the patients there did not have that. One person was seeking help because of the experience she had at FT Hood but she was still having to work with the medical provider so that her leadership could believe the legitimacy of needing mental health care which took her temporarily out of work. I couldn’t believe it and felt disgusted. I wanted to help her, maybe put my uniform back on and talk to her leadership for her. But reality hit again, “Kristin, you cannot take care of others if you don't take care of yourself. You need to take care of YOU right now.”

I learned so many lessons from therapy and will say my desire to want to live again came from the experience I shared with the other patients during our group sessions. One of the women told me that, "I know you see yourself as broken right now, but I low key see you as a mentor. I look up to you a lot." I thought to myself how could this be? They didn’t know anything about my accomplishments, titles, achievements or any of that. I came in looking sad, hair hidden under a ball cap, cried at nearly every session, but somehow, they said they admired "how I carried myself." I was SO confused. Somehow, all they saw was me-as I am, no hiding. Totally broken. And somehow, they were INSPIRED by it. They felt CONNECTED to me. Had I had presented myself as the "together Kristin" I would have completely missed out on this special connection.

You see, I've ALWAYS been that "come up kid" fighting to find a way and have a chance. I often still see myself as that hurt little kid that was 'never enough' to be believed by teachers, academic systems or to make friends. What my fellow patients and therapists helped me see, was me: as I REALLY am, and not what the world did to me or what I internally believed.

A powerful experience happened during the final day of our group therapy sessions. I realized that each of my fellow patients saw themselves in me and I saw myself in each of them. Seeing them and knowing each of the various pains that they carried, reminded me of me, during the various phases of my life. They helped inspire me to REMEMBER who I TRULY am. They showed me that I had already BECOME the very person I NEEDED as a kid. That it was okay for me to step into my light, rather than be afraid of it.

I had no idea that this therapy would do that for me. I left accepting that my healing and recovery is going to be a process, just like life. And I want to enjoy it. I don't yet know if drive is a part of me or something I was taught or conditioned to have in order to be accepted and survive. I just know that I will no longer be living in the same way that I was. I'm told that the Air Force and country is changing. I guess we will see. What I do know, is that what is for me WILL BE for me. I'm no longer killing myself to belong.

Photos: Our final week in Intensive Outpatient Therapy (IOP) we were given the option of giving our fellow patients and therapists feedback or any message we’d like to share, on our experience with them. These are some of the notes I received.


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