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Pay it Forward: Maj Kelly Schuetz **TW: Suicide**

5 October 2022


Last night I had a nightmare. After multiple dream interpretations with my therapist, I know that dreams could be viewed as extensions of ourselves. I sense that this dream has to do with my fears of returning to work. I have not gone back to work for the past two months because I tried to kill myself.


Back in August of last year I received some devastating news that made everything in me want to die and made me question who I really am. My entire worldview, foundation, ability to trust others, everything was rocked and practically destroyed. I told my Air Force leadership what happened, took two days off to collect myself, then returned to work. I carried on, but due to more stress and toxicity in the environment, I was not able to get better.


Over the span of a year, I saw the Chaplain, the Psychologist in our unit, marriage and family life counselor, medical social worker with mental health, attended weekly stress management courses, Psychiatrist, and while I was able to keep myself stable, I progressively was getting worst. What started off as shock and deep sadness, turned into full on depression and anxiety. My suicide ideations turned into suicide intent and self-harm. After being placed as high risk by mental health and receiving news of another delay in my treatment and care and would have to return to work, I tried to take my life. I was hospitalized for four days, placed on convalescent leave for most of the month of August and started my intensive outpatient treatment for four days of the week during the entire month of September.

My hospitalization and outpatient treatment were the first time I finally experienced some relief and quality care. Monthly check-ins with a therapist and a small dosage of antidepressants WAS NOT cutting it. What these inpatient/outpatient therapies provided me with that was so helpful were the following:


1). A Safe Space. I've been told that I put a lot of pressure on myself but I never understood what that meant because I saw myself as only doing what I HAD to do. I began to identify the sources of my pressure: pressure for being an officer in a Director of Operations position leading a high ops tempo Squadron, pressure from developing a reputation of being a high performer and being expected to be a valued contributor to the team; pressure to help all the Airmen with their operational problems; pressure to dissolve conflicts with grace that come to me, pressure to connect with other people despite being in a job where I lead my peer group and don’t yet wear the rank that my position calls for; pressure to hide my depression; pressure to take care of others; pressure to take care of myself; pressure to be a supportive family member; pressure to be a present wife; pressure being the only black woman officer AGAIN in a predominantly white space at work. Pressure learning how to make life comfortable in a new country. Pressure, pressure, pressure.


Being in a safe space I didn't feel like I had to hide. Hiding was a HEAVY weight. Everyone in the hospital/therapy groups had problems. Everyone in there had no interest in "faking it". And we could just be our true selves. It was liberating.


2). Quality Care. My outpatient therapy provided Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (Act) which allowed us to do exercises that helped us learn more about ourselves and do committed actions to work closer to our values-based goals. We did a combination of group therapy which was AMAZING by showing us we had community and were not alone, and one-on-ones with a psychologist for deep-dives. I was able to discover what my current values are and take steps toward being in alignment with them. I became more aware of how unaware I was of my true self and became committed to remembering and unlocking her. I also was able to accept the bad things that happened to me and realize that I am not what happened to me, I am not my thoughts, feelings, nor am I the thoughts or actions of others, I am not my positions, accomplishments, achievements, etc. I CAN NOT be defined.


3) Self-Care WITHOUT SHAME OR GUILT. I was able to fully devote thirty days to this program without any responsibilities at work. I only met weekly with my Squadron leadership where I would give updates on my therapy over coffee. I had their full support to work on myself and it was HUGE. Not everyone in my group had this level of support during their therapy and it heavily impacted their ability to be present and have breakthroughs for their self in their care. I immediately saw the privilege I had and wish other leaders did the same for their Airmen and Soldiers. Self-care is an individual responsibility where the ownness is on the individual to integrate into their daily life. However, I felt so much pressure to perform, demands to care for others before myself and fear of falling short that I didn’t know how to prioritize time for me. And my depression removed any desire and ability to do so.

Last night I found out that our Air Force lost another Airmen to what is speculated to be suicide: Maj Kelly Schuetz. I knew Kelly as a 2d Lieutenant. She was a Captain at the time and a fellow Flight Commander. She took me out to lunch to talk to me about leading as a Flight Commander in our Squadron (the 93 IS). She also shared several tips about being a Company Grade Officer and told me she was available if I ever had questions or wanted to talk. At the conclusion of our lunch, she gave me a packed baggie full of 2d Lt and 1st Lt ranks. I was filled with gratitude and told her thank you. She told me, "Just Pay it forward."

I lost touch with Kelly after she PCS'd to ASOS, but after going through what I went through this past year and knowing who Kelly was, I can understand what some of what she might have felt.


Kelly was a high performing officer. She consistently excelled at what she did, and it reflected in her achievements. My experience in the Air Force has consistently been going up stream without a paddle. Sometimes going upstream without a boat. I've consistently been thrown in jobs above my paygrade, given damn near impossible problems with limited resources or skills or time and told "to make it work". Whoever can "best make it work" gets the prize. They’re lifted up. They are the model to follow. But it's not sustainable. And no matter what you do, good or bad you will always have your share of critics who seem to throw RUTHLESS daggers. Some daggers or comments REAKING of bias often, unbeknownst to the person spewing it. My response has been to just keep taking it. Then there is the battle of FEELING isolated. The military designed itself for a certain "type." The structure of rank, how we dress, how we do business is most suitable for that "type". The reality is, that a single type is not the sole solution to solving the real complex problems of today. Diverse teams are. We NEED diversity in our military because that is the composition of our American society. We need to expose our vulnerabilities to ourselves and our teams so that we can build TRUST. Yet, it appears that everything for diversity is an uphill battle. So many cries for vulnerability is met with blank stares. EVERYTHING is a fight. I am facing the reality of after YEARS of attempting to catch up and make myself a competent, credible, leader and officer for ALL Airmen, I am STILL receiving feedback that "I have a lot more to prove". It's too much. The bias, the criticism, the pressure it needs to stop. Or we need to create safe environments where EVERYONE is vulnerable so we can face the challenges together and not feel Alone. Vulnerability can no longer be a known attribute to just a few. Safe spaces cannot continue to be created by those who are being crushed. Those who have the option to conceal their vulnerabilities need to speak up and take action too.


Since I started this: "Therapy thoughts" series, I've been told that I am brave. While I appreciate the sentiment, the reality is that I'm just being honest. As a child my parents, teachers, coaches engrained in me to "always tell the truth." Isn't that strange that we live in a society where telling one's truth of a personal lived experience is considered courageous and brave? What if people stopped doing things that made others feel like they had to keep what was experienced or what was done to them a secret?


I can no longer live in a world where I don't feel safe. Where I solely am responsible for my own protection and that everyone can't be trusted and is out to get me. I can no longer wait for the Air force or the world to create a safe space for me. Three weeks ago my Squadron performed a memorial for another fallen Airmen. Staff Sergeant Dante Baynes. 25 years old. I CHOOSE to share my story and my truth because I HAVE to create a safe space for me. It is no longer an option but SURVIVAL. And by better knowing myself I know that others see themselves in me and that safe space is needed FOR ALL OF US. While I have come to learn that not everyone is interested or willing or in a place where they are comfortable sharing their own stories or participate in conversations like these, I do hope that we can reach a place where we can support and respect the safety of others. I will no longer live a life where I am uncomfortable ALL the time. I want to feel comfort too.


My Commander told me that as a Field Grade Officer you get to shape and create the culture. At this point, staying in the Air Force is no longer up to my internal drive, as my body will be the determining factor of whether I will be "fit to serve". The truth is, I am EXHAUSTED. I'm not optimistic and I'm terrified to return to work and start my new job tomorrow in my new rank, but I do want to live again. That's progress from last month. So maybe there is some hope.



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