Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Growing Up Military & Last Day of 4th Grade Thoughts

Yesterday was Dannika's last day of school...her last day as a 4th grader. Fifth grade feels so much more grown up than 4th grade, and realizing that she'll be 12-13 years old when we PCS from Yuma is so beyond my wildest thoughts. How did my sweet bald baby (that we swore would never grow hair) turn into an almost 10 year old?!

She seriously had NO hair until she was literally 4 years old.
The moment I became a mother, all the "seasoned" parents would cock their head to side, sigh a big sigh, longingly smile, and say, "they grow up so fast, enjoy every moment". It's not that I didn't believe them, but I honestly didn't realize just how fast it would happen. I had Dannika when I was 25 years old. In today's standards, that's actually pretty young. More women are opting to wait to have children to establish careers, buy homes, etc. these days.

Military families tend to be really young. Military life is lonely without a partner to share it with. Because of that, in my experience, I have noticed that marriage and families happen faster than my civilian counterparts (generally speaking).

I thought I was so mature and ahead of my peers at 25 years old, but looking back now, I realize I had no clue what I was doing...or who I was. I was naive (and didn't realize it), and I had a baby to keep alive. Hell...I could barely keep myself alive some days. Praise the Lord for daycare. Ms. Kathi (Dannika's daycare provider) basically made sure Dannika wouldn't end up TOO messed up during that time. I am sure of it. After all, she spent 10-12 hours a day at Ms. Kathi's daycare while I served in the Marines.

I often refer to Dannika as my "Marine life sidekick". She's been through it all with me from the very beginning. When Nick deployed for the first time to Afghanistan, she was only 6 months old. It was just her and me. Nick's first deployment to Afghanistan was rough for me.

He subsequently deployed to Afghanistan one more time when she was 2. Then, when she was 3 years old, Nick got orders to Boston. I was still active duty. and waiting to be discharged. Once again, her and I were solo together without Nick for a year (in Orange County). We've been through a lot together as a mother/daughter duo. I always have a special place in my heart just for Dannika.

I have all sorts of emotions this week. She's starting to enter puberty (insert cry face emoji here), and it scares the ever living hell out of me. I was such an awful preteen, teenager, and adolescent, and I am praying that she is nothing like I was. Someone once told me that motherhood isn't for the faint of heart. I might have laughed to myself when I heard that at first, but as my kids get older and gain more individuality, I am realizing just how true that statement is. I struggle some days with putting ALL my faith in God. I am a control freak by nature, and it's really hard for me to completely surrender to anything, let alone faith. But of course, when motherhood gets really tough, I really have no choice but to surrender. So with we 5th grade...

Dannika started the school year off in College Station, TX. Then we moved here to Yuma, AZ, and enrolled her into the public school that was zoned for our neighborhood. We had come from such an amazing (and high performing) school district that when we came here, she was bored. I'll have to do a blog post in the future about moving around and switching school districts. We looked into other options for her to make sure she would be challenged academically, and found Southwestern Christian School. It has been an amazing fit for her academically, and most importantly, spiritually.

Dream big, sweet girl.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Mother's Day Reflections and Postpartum Depression

The response I got from my last post (Peace, Love, & War) was overwhelming. I had so many kind messages from friends, family, and strangers. I had several people message me privately to tell me about their own struggles dealing with a loved one that was struggling with TBI, PTSD, as well as physical ailments. That post did everything I wanted it to and more. I am so proud of Nick for being so brave, and allowing me to share his story with my little corner of the internet.

Mother's day was this past Sunday, and I always do a lot of reflecting on that day. Honestly, I didn't want to be a mother.

I was a Marine, and I had big aspirations of staying in the Marine Corps, and eventually retiring. I felt like children would get in the way of that. When I met Nick, I distinctly remember telling him, "if you want kids one day, then I'm not your girl!" Because I'm so charming and irresistible (kidding), he was ok with that. Except, after we got married, we weren't exactly trying to prevent pregnancy. I even blurted out (after drinking) that I changed my mind and wanted kids. So we did what people do to get pregnant. Then I got pregnant, and I was devastated. I was on recruiting duty at the time, and that duty had no room for motherhood. I was working insane hours, and under a ton of stress. But, Dannika made her appearance in July of 2009.
photography: Melissa Lyn Photography in Temecula, CA
I'd like to tell you a happy baby story of how overwhelmingly joyous our home was with this new baby, but it wasn't. I put up a facade on social media about how "blessed" we were, and how we were so over the moon with our new bundle of joy. In fact, when I go back and read the earlier blog posts from 2009 from when Dannika was born, I feel like such a fraud.

As a Marine, I got 6 weeks of maternity leave, and Nick got a whopping 10 whole days of paternal leave (leave time for both parents is a lot longer now). That first day Nick went back to work, I had a panic attack. Being responsible for taking care of this baby all by myself with no help terrified me. I felt unqualified to be a mom, and was completely overwhelmed. I would impatiently watch the hours go by until Nick would be home. Around 3 in the afternoon, I was flooding Nick's phone with a barrage of texts asking him what time he was leaving work. I know I stressed him out. We were both stressed out, but for very different reasons.
I wasn't cut out for this, and I wasn't sure how I was going to do it. When my 6 weeks of maternity leave came to an end, I experienced another turmoil of emotions. I was happy to be getting back to work, but I was feeling an immense amount of guilt about dropping my 6 week old infant off at daycare. "I'm a terrible mom. What kind of mom drops an infant off with practically a stranger for 10 hours a day?!" While feeling the guilt of dropping my baby off, I was also feeling guilt from feeling happy to get some reprieve from "mommy duties". I felt guilty about being excited to get back to work. It's a lose/lose situation, ladies.

Nick deployed to Afghanistan when Dannika was just 6 months old, and that was just another disaster of a deployment for me.
Dropping Nick off at 2AM at the armory for deployment. I got no good pics. I was a hot sobbing mess.

I managed to survive the 7 months he was gone, but survive is all I did. I was "the worst deployment wife" ever. On the rare occasions that Nick would get to call me, I would just sit on the phone and cry. I'd cry to him about how awful recruiting duty was. I'd cry to him about mom guilt. I'd cry about Dannika. I'd cry about the sleepless nights...the lonely nights. I'd cry to him about everything. This is not what a deployed husband wants to hear from his wife. My eating disorder got out of hand during that deployment. I felt like my life was falling apart, so I decided to control my eating. I counted everything I ate. I was taking laxatives. I was taking diet pills. My OCD was out of control. In fact, when Nick saw me for the first time at his homecoming, he was shocked (not in the best way) at how thin I was.
I was so thin. My hair was actually falling out.
When I look back at that deployment, I feel a lot of guilt for the way I treated Nick.

As any military wife knows, the reintegration after a long separation is almost harder than the actual deployment/separation itself. Having Nick back home just put a band aid on my own issues. After the "honeymoon phase" was over, life kept moving on. My struggles with being a mom was rearing its' ugly head into our marriage. I was also being sexually harassed at work, and trying to navigate the legal aspects of that. The stress of that exacerbated everything else that seemed to be crumbling in my life. I started going to therapy to deal with my panic attacks, anxiety, and depression.
I wish I would have seen a therapist sooner, because I could have gotten the help I needed with PPD sooner. It would have made coping with Nick's deployment and my job so much more manageable. At the time, I blamed everything on recruiting duty and the stresses that came with it. Looking back, my postpartum depression made the stresses of new motherhood, deployment, and work even worse than they already were.

I feel guilty sometimes, because I didn't enjoy motherhood to the fullest extent for the first year and a half of my daughter's life (by no fault of her own). When I look at her today, I am so overwhelmed at how amazing she is. I can't help but thank God for not allowing me to "royally screw her up" (lol...sorta). To know her is to love her. As cliché as that sounds, it's the truth.
Reunited with daddy after 7 long months! She was 6 months old when he left, and 13 months when he came home!
Dannika today.
When it came time for my son to be born, I knew the signs of PPD that I needed to watch out for. My doctor actually recommended that I take antidepressants before his birth since I had a history of PPD. I didn't take them, because I was paranoid about taking medications while pregnant. I should have listened to my doctor though, and taken them. I had just gotten out of the Marine Corps, and was dealing with "transition stress". Adding pregnancy hormones and postpartum hormone fluctuations to that was a disaster. Nick and I had some really big struggles during that time in our marriage. It was a combination of a lot of things, but having a history of anxiety, depression, and PPD, I should have been on medication.

It took a lot of therapy and a whole lot of Jesus to get to where I am today in my life as a wife and a mother. Those times were not good times, and I wanted to give up a lot. Nick and I almost separated during that time.
My mom (God bless her) wouldn't let me, and basically forced me to stay and work it out. That experience (as awful as it was) really strengthened my faith. When you hit rock bottom, and have nothing else to cling to, Jesus is always there. I'm a better mom today because of it. I post all the good stuff on my social media of my kids and my family. I like to document the happy times. Someone told me that social media is like scrapbooking. You don't put the ugly photos in a scrapbook. I hope people see through my blog that our happiness has not come without a lot of struggles, a lot of rock bottoms, and a lot of redemption. We have our days still, but they haven't been quite as bad as in the past. I'm sure rough days are ahead, but for now, I choose joy. I choose to live in the moment, and enjoy all that motherhood brings me.

Mother's Day 2019

And just for good measure, here's a newborn photo of my second baby...Mattis Mark Vincent

photography: Rebecca Deaton Photography of Natick, MA

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Peace, Love, & War

In Nick's 18 years of service, his toughest deployment has been the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004. The Battle of Fallujah is an iconic battle in the post 9-11 era, and was considered one of the biggest urban battles since the Battle of Hue City in Vietnam. In 11 years of marriage, Nick has rarely opened up to me about his experiences in Fallujah. I've been careful not to pry, and have just let him share what he wants when he feels comfortable. It doesn't mean I don't have a million burning questions. I've tried to dig through his things to get some sort of inkling of what he saw and experienced. He was awarded a Navy Achievement Medal (NAM) for his actions in Fallujah with a "V" device for Valor. I also have a Navy Achievement Medal, but mine does not have a device for valor because it was not earned in combat. I got mine for being my recruiting station's "Rookie Recruiter of the Year" (just to give y'all some context to the award). I've asked a few times throughout our marriage how he got his "V" on his NAM, but he usually beats around the bush, and doesn't give me a straight answer. I stopped asking, because he clearly is uncomfortable with the question. I used to take that pretty hard.

I held that inside of me while silently having my feelings hurt, because I wanted to respect him.

For the last 11 years of our marriage, I have watched Nick's health deteriorate slowly. First it was a little back pain that turned into a big back pain. Neck pain. Limbs going numb. Migraines. A little sleeplessness turned into full blown insomnia. Hearing loss and severe tinnitus (if y'all didn't know already, he wears hearing aids). With all of these health issues comes irritability, some depression (which he has not been diagnosed with...I am just assuming), and a lot of frustration. Nick hides it very well. No one would know all of these issues that he deals with on a constant basis.

The pills either make him feel worse or don't help him at all. I have changed our family's eating habits and lifestyle to try and alleviate some of his discomfort. It has helped a little, but not a whole lot.

In the last year, Nick has really started to take his health a little more seriously. He is close to retirement. After watching all the hassle I went through to get my benefits through the VA, he knew he needed to really start documenting his health issues. Documentation is EVERYTHING when it comes to the VA and getting benefits. If you just show up at your exit physical complaining of all sorts of medical issues, the first question they ask is, "where is your documentation?". He also began to go see "the wizard" all on his own. The wizard is a term that some Marines use to call a therapist. I have asked him to go see a therapist several times, and I always got the typical answer...

So when he told me that he had started to go see "the wizard", I was genuinely shocked and so giddy inside. I tried not to be weird about it though (which I probably was), and thanked God for answering my prayers. I know that there is still a lot of healing that needs to happen, and I am grateful that he's taken a proactive step towards that.

I finally felt peace as far as Nick and his experiences in combat. Up until now, I felt so "in the dark" about everything. Because he didn't want to talk to me about it, I didn't know how I could help him. Knowing that he was talking to someone (a professional!) about it put my soul at ease. 

Several months later, Nick and I were getting ready for bed, and he casually mentioned to me, "so, I turned in all my paperwork for a Purple Heart." I stopped what I was doing, and had to ask again, "a what?! You were injured in combat??? When? How?" I had so many questions running through my head. 

He told me how he was injured, and explained why he chose now to finally put the documentation in for his Purple Heart. He posted this on Facebook:

"You can’t prepare yourself for everything. No congratulations needed. 14 years have passed since we were in Fallujah. The scenario was about as kinetic as it could have been. Enemy fighters were trying to push out of the city to escape the tanks, troop carriers and the Marines that were moving in quickly behind them as they cleared house to house just like the did through Hue city in Vietnam. Our job was not as dangerous as that but just as important as we established our blocking positions near the cloverleaf to prevent anyone from leaving the city and to provide safe passage for the Maine effort as they moved into their attack positions. The only protection we had was from the guard rails in front of our vehicles and minimal micro terrain. The enemy attempted to soften our position with rockets, small arms fire, and mortars. While I was moving between vehicles I was caught in it and I don't understand how I came out of it with all of my limbs and only received some secondary shrapnel and a concussion from the incoming mortars and rockets. I have kept this mostly to myself and between me and some very close friends. I didn’t burden my family with any of the details of that night or any other night. Today I received a Purple Heart from that night. The only thing I can say is it is an honor and privilege to wear it for those who no longer have the means and a burden to bare until the next life. I am honored and sad. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure how I feel. Maybe at peace. Semper Fi. I wear this for you Vincent Bell, Louie Cardin, Benito Aguilar, Jordan Stanton, Donald Hogan, Andrew Brownfield and the hundreds who made the ultimate sacrifice. Rest easy and we will remember you always. Thanks to Hana and the kids for keeping me grounded and forgiving me for everything and to my close friends who always lifted me back up."

Nick was officially diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI). It was finally an explanation for all his health problems and symptoms he has been experiencing for all these years. He's been given a referral the the TBI clinic at Camp Pendleton, and we are so grateful. They have one of the most state of the art TBI clinics in the nation. It's truly a blessing.

His Purple Heart was approved, and his long overdue Purple Heart ceremony was last Thursday. He didn't want a ceremony. He actually told his XO, that he would be totally ok with him just putting it on his desk when it comes in. I wouldn't stand for that. Not after all that we have been through as a family. I also know his unit would not let him just have it "put on his desk". The Purple Heart is weird in the fact that it's an "award", but not one you can really earn on your own merit. I know several Purple Heart recipients have told me that they feel guilty wearing it, because many of the service members who got the same award didn't make it home alive. I see it as a symbol of sacrifice, and I am really proud of Nick.  

Here are some photos I managed to snap with my iPhone from his ceremony. Someone took some nicer photos, but I don't have those (obviously). Nick felt really weird that people wanted photos with him, but oh well...

This is Nick with two other 2ndLts that he went to TBS with. 

I know this post is long. If you made it down here, have too much time on your hands and need to find a hobby (kidding...maybe). It was actually way longer, but I condensed it and took a lot of details out. I guess if you really want to know more, you can ask me! I really wanted to share a little part of Nick's story, and our family's journey. Like I mentioned before, I asked Nick if he was ok with me sharing this. I know it's very vulnerable for him. I'm a very open person on social media, and on this blog, but when it comes to sensitive or personal matters that involve my family, I always ask before I post. The biggest thing is, we just want other families who are dealing with combat trauma and the wounds of war to know that they're not alone. 

Instagram: @semperagblog