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Nail Polish

6 March 2023:

The first week of February Michael said to me, "It's been 6 months." I asked him, "Since when?" and he replied, "since you were hospitalized." It's been alot but look how far you've come." We both looked at each other with potent humility and admiration all in one glance. We both knew we've been through a lot and how fortunate we both were to finally get a level of support that we needed when we had reached the end of our rope. When I reflect on the personal growth I've experienced on this healing journey, I can't help but think of the major breakthoughs that came from painting my fingernails back in September.

6 September 2022 was when I started my intensive outpatient (IOP) therapy at Camp Humphreys. The week prior to that, I had my initial consultation with my Psychologist during the program which was an extremely stressful encounter. This is where the Psychologist explained to me how the same things that were happening to my mom and grandma [racism] are happening to me, and its not getting better anytime soon. The Psychologist further explained how he could counsel me for 23 hours of the day and I can "feel" better but it wouldn't change the stressors that have led me to be here. And the nature of the Air Force is just like the Army in that it values service and others before oneself. He strongly encouraged me to consider pursuing the Medical Evaluation Board (MEB) for a medical retirement and we could use our remaining time together to work on getting me on a path towards healing the hurt I experienced as well as exploring what other career-fields would value me as I am. As the Regular AF in its current state wasn't it.

I left the meeting extremely overwhelmed, emotional, and stressed. After talking with Michael, my Sq leadership, and close friends, everyone was in agreement that I was not in the mental state to make that type of major career and life decision, and that the AF still had a responsibility to help me get better with QUALITY care, before they sent me out the door. A 60 minute appointment with a therapist from the mental health office once a month was NOT quality care.

By my next meeting my Psychologist was supportive of my goals for care and eased off some on pressuring me to get out. My guard was still extremely high with him. While he told me he was half Cuban, he looked white, had a bald head and was a man. Because of my unhealed and unprocessed trauma, just seeing and being around him, I was immediately triggered. I had asked for a woman provider before IOP began, but he was who I was assigned to so I tried to have an open mind. He was a former Navy Seal, had a daughter, was an empath, was deeply engaged and knowlegeable on psychology, culture and people. Even though his physique triggered my trauma, when I listened to what he said, how vulnerable, professional and empathetic he was I gradually felt safer.

One thing he mentioned that stood out to me during this meeting was he mentioned I needed to start finding out what "feels good." When he said these words, I was in such a state of depression that I couldn't remember what "things" made me FEEL good. Feel good.... What feels good to me?

During the week I remembered how I used to treat myself and get my nails done with friends or alone. Due to the high ops tempo from work and the depression I was experiencing, I stopped getting my nails done while stationed out here in Korea. I stopped doing a lot of things that formerly made me feel, "good." It was like a part of me didn't believe I deserved to feel good or didn't want to expend any energy to do an activity that could bring about an emotion that could lead to more feelings of guilt or shame for doing something for myself. At the direction of my Psychologist, I took myself to get my nails done.

As I sat in the salon chair and decided what color to choose, I felt a surge of anger rise inside of me. It was in that moment that I realized, I have not painted my finger nails a color that is not within USAF regulations since I was 13 years old. I have been wearing the Air Force uniform since I was a freshmen in high school as an AFJROTC cadet. While at that time I was only required to wear the uniform once a week for inspection days and had summers and holidays off, I found it easier to just keep my fingernails in regulation rather than going back and forth to remove the color so I kept them either plain or a very modest french tip or "complementary to flesh" color. The day of my wedding I wore press on nails. I've let little kids paint my fingernails during arts and crafts but that was always a same day removal. When the nail beautician asked me what color I wanted, I told her, "Purple. I'd like to have the bright purple."

As I sat in the chair and she cleaned and shaped my nails, massaged my hands then applied the clear base polish, I rememberered how good this feels. To just relax, not worry about anything or anyone else but just allow someone else to take care of me. As she applied the purple color to each nail I felt an immeasurable, intense flow of excitement circulating all through my body. I was feeling GOOD. It felt GOOD to see my nails in that purple color. It felt GOOD to do something I hadn't been allowed to do for so long. I was feeling good.

I then had a flashback from when I was in middle school. I started to remember how I use to LOVE painting my fingernails. During that time, my mom had bought me my own professional nail kit along with about 20 different nail polish colors for styling. She bought me a little kit that could help me stencil designs and perform french tips on myself and others. I used to paint my nails all kinds of different colors and designs as a kid. I use to LOVE doing that. Why did I stop? The Air Force, I thought. The Air Force TOOK this from me. All these years the Air Force just TOOK TOOK TOOK the very things that made me feel good and helped me feel connected to the parts and methods I used to express who I am. It took away my "greatness." I thought. I felt the joy be replaced by RAGE. I then asked the beautician, "May I have diamonds on the nails? I'd like to add diamonds." So I got some diamonds; this calmed the rage within, and I began to feel good again.

By the end of the session, I was convinced that getting out of the Air Force was my solution. I was done. The AF took enough from me. I am going to find a job where I can wear my nails in different colors and allow myself to be GREAT. Grow into the person I was meant to be before I let the AF hold me back. But then I paused. That was it. I LET the AF "hold me back." The AF always was upfront about its grooming standards, I made the CHOICE to pursue it with full knowledge of what the standards were. I rationalized that the personal sacrifices in this form of physical expression was worth it because the experiences in the AF were worth it to me. Who I believed I could become as an Airmen IN the AF, was worth it to me. I remember thinking this. I remember feeling this. I remember once being described as someone who, "bleeds blue" because I was so passionate about serving. I loved what I did. I loved my career, the people, and the experiences I had in the AF. What happened?

As I left the salon my surge of confidence and joy gradually started to collapse into full paranoia and anxiety. I began to remember that I had a meeting with the Commander (CC) and Director of Operations (DO) the next day over coffee to check in. The agreement was that while I attended the IOP, the therapy would be my place of duty and I would meet with the CC weekly to check-in. I started thinking about my purple bedazzled nails. I started to wonder, what will she think? Will she think I'm faking being sick? Will she think I'm just trying to get out of work? If I run into other people in the Squadron will they think I'm just trying to pass off my work over to them to just do what I want? I started feeling bad about the nails. "This was a mistake.... I shouldn't have done this...." I thought. I started to contemplate how I should show up to the meeting. Maybe I can wear gloves? It was too hot for that. They would know I was hiding something. Maybe I keep my hands under the table? Or, if I keep my fingers folded to conceal my nails, that will be the best option. I had so much anxiety about what perception would be formed about me by choosing to paint my nails a color outside of AF regulations while I attended my month long therapy, that did not have grooming standards. Even though I wasn't doing ANYTHING wrong and was well within the direction of my medical providers, I couldn't shake the feeling that others would or could PERCEIVE me as doing something wrong.

The next day I confronted my fears and showed up to the coffee meeting with my purple bedazzled nails as is. "Your nails look pretty" the CC and DO both said. "Thank you," I replied. And that was that.

This one experience revealed to me so much about myself. First, that I care WAY TOO MUCH about the opinion of others or the possible perceptions others may form of me. With every act I calculate multiple steps ahead about what the possible perceptions could be or implications to the point that I exhaust myself or do nothing. It's good to be considerate of others but this was obsessive. Why was I so worried about what others thought of me? If any of my possible perception scenarios were true, how did that change the reality that my Psychologist told me to do something that made me feel good and I chose to paint my nails a color that I COULD wear while I was not in uniform. I knew the truth, why wasn't that enough to allow me to feel and better yet, BE secure?

Secondly, I only felt "safe" doing something for myself if someone else, an authority or power figure, told me to do so. I started to explore what felt good for me when the Psychologist gave me persmission and direction to do so. I didn't allow myself to feel safe with the nail color, until my CC and DO validated it for me. Why do I need permission or validation to do something for myself? To do something that feels GOOD and JUST and TRUE to me? Was I always like this or was I conditioned to be like this? If this is conditioning, where did it come from?

Finally, the anger and resentment I felt was from years of giving too much of myself to the AF. I use to feel like if I didn't give everything I had, the AF wouldn't choose me. This was my rational as I competed to earn an AF commision. My ROTC class started with 80 but ended with 11. It was very competitive at the time that I was going through the program. My thought then transformed into, if I don't give everything I have, the AF won't keep me. I'll be left behind. I won't be what my Airmen deserve. I have to give everything in me every time all the time to try to catch up. They deserve the best. I am not enough as I am, I need to do more! Harboring this mentality for as long as I've been wearing the AF uniform (technically just under 20 years now, counting my time as a cadet), is literally killing me. One of the Psychologist I saw during the early onset of my depression said to me, "You are someone who has given the AF too much. You need to give the AF less and give more to yourself." When he said this I didn't know what he was talking about. I thought to myself, "do you see the jobs I've been charged to do? He is a man. I'm not sensing that he is aware or considering how others see me or the unconcious and sometimes, deliberate, biases that I am up against. I'm not doing enough!" After this nail polish experience, I now see EXACTLY what he meant. I consistently chose to give the AF everything in me and was left discontented or burnt out when nothing was poured into my cup. In that moment I realized, I need to learn how to refill my own cup while I am still in this job. Refilling my own cup is my responsibility. I need to learn that it's ok to give an amount to the AF that still allows me to fill my own cup as well. I need to learn and know that I too, am WORTHY of my cup being refilled.

With these revelations I started to take full advantage of my IOP therapy month. The next week I painted my nails green with gold rhinestones. The week after that, I painted them sparkly blue with the ring fingers white with 3 pressed diamonds. Some of the other patients were impressed and inspired by the revelations I was having. "Every week you have a new color!" One patient said. "You are really making progress in your personal growth discoveries," said another. Our group was so supportive of each other that it felt good to share the goodness I was experiencing and see them feel good too. It felt good to pour into my own cup and not feel guilty or shame for it. It felt good to feel good.

My experience with the IOP Psychologist was one of significant growth as well. I felt my guard be at an all maximum setting when I first met him. While we definitely had a rocky start, I grew to trust and deeply appreciate the Psychologist for all of his counsel. He helped me unlock pieces of myself that I had no idea how to navigate on my own. He had skills that I had never experienced before in therapy. For example, he was trained in dream analysis and since I was having nightly vivid dreams and nightmares, he had me write them down and he would interpret the meaning of each piece of the dream and share with me what my sub-conscious mind was processing. I had so many dreams (sometimes two to three dreams a night) that he told me to pick my top three dreams for him to interpret during our sessions. It was incredible! In the short time I had with him he helped me address the issues that were important to me: the wound from my dad, obstacles in my marriage, and the chaos within myself. He helped me learn to facilitate my own internal dialogue to start me on a path to help me work to trust myself. Trusting my own voice. My experience with him helped me remember that not all people who share the same features of those who've hurt me or caused me trauma, will do the same. Everyone is their own person and everyone deserves a fair chance free from judgment caused by the actions of those before them.

While I no longer paint my nails the out of regulation colors during the work week (unless I plan to take an extended leave), I have kept up painting my toe nails since my therapy ended. My latest color is purple. Not only is it very reminiscent of the first color I chose back in September when my anxiety was at an all time high, but it reminds me of Queen Ramonda, the character from "Wakonda Forever" in the Black Panther series. When I look down at them it reminds me that even if its not visible to me all the time, or at all, those parts of me, the "greatness" I've felt and possess, is ALWAYS there. Always within me.

Photos: Sparkly blue nails with diamonds (above left) note from the IOP Psychologist (above right)

Photo: My "Queen Ramonda Nails 😁


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