Veteran James Phelps was at a fireworks celebration with his wife and infant daughter eight years ago, and he thought he was dying.
“All of a sudden, I just felt the blood rush out of my face,” Phelps said. “I was like, ‘I can’t hardly breathe.’ So I handed my daughter to my wife and said, ‘We need to go to the hospital because I think I’m having a heart attack.’”
At the hospital, all his tests were normal. The doctors explained that he’d likely had a panic attack. It was one symptom that would eventually lead to a PTSD diagnosis.
Veterans deal with high rates of PTSD and fireworks are a common trigger. It’s treatable but the barriers to care can be high. Alaska faces shortages of behavioral health providers, lack of beds for in-patient care, and inconsistent services in rural areas. And counselors say veterans may be more hesitant to reach out because they feel like they should be able to handle things on their own.
Phelps wants to share his story in the hopes that other struggling veterans might reach out for help earlier.
Ultimately, Phelps’ mental health issues grew too big to handle by himself. He was already dealing with PTSD when he lost a best friend to suicide.
“And that’s kind of when the bottom fell out,” he said.
He was having nightmares, panic attacks, and memory loss. He started seeing a counselor, for grief, but he was struggling with much more than that. Then, he went to an inpatient psychiatric hospitalization in Kansas City, Missouri–the first of two inpatient stays he would complete.
“And it was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my entire life because it was the moment I had to admit that I could no longer do my job,” said Phelps. “So it was also one of the smartest things I ever did in my life. It’s probably the only reason I’m still here.”
Inpatient care helped Phelps deal with the emotional fallout of his service and the loss of his friend. But after that, he wasn’t sure where his life would go next.
His wife Cynthia Phelps secretly signed him up for a Wounded Warrior Program in Colorado. She told him it would be a vacation. Instead, Phelps ended up at a one-week wellness intensive with other wounded veterans.
“It ended up being anything but a vacation,” said Phelps. “I’m in a room with about 15 other people. We’re all going through our dirt and we’re supporting each other and we’re learning from each other. It just became a great group of people.”
That program allowed Phelps to start rebuilding that sense of purpose he’d lost when he left the military.
Phelps has mobility issues from his work. He doesn’t need to use a wheelchair for his daily life. But as part of the Wounded Warrior wellness program, he learned to play wheelchair rugby, wheelchair basketball, and seated volleyball. They were sports he didn’t think he was capable of playing anymore.
“So along with that comes confidence and self esteem boosts a sense of belonging to something,” said Phelps.
Phelps’ journey is a familiar one to Monique Andrews. She’s a therapist and is in the Alaska Army National Guard. She’s not speaking officially for the military, but in her private practice she sees many veterans and people in the military.
She said she sees a lot of PTSD in her practice but people in the military face a wide range of mental health struggles. And Phelps isn’t the only one who’s had trouble asking for help. Alaska has the highest proportion of veterans in the country and only half of veterans that need mental health care actually get it nationwide.
“There is a lot of rigid rigidity around the role of being a military member. It is a role of reverence. It is a role of respect, it is a role of protector, it is a role of always maintaining control,” said Andrews. “And, and it almost leaves no room for error.”
Andrews said sometimes the people around a veteran or service member can miss signs that they’re struggling. Veterans and those in the military may be more likely to feel their struggles in their body; anxiety or depression might show up as neck or back pain. Or, it may seem less like someone is struggling internally and more that they are acting out.
“They [may] demonstrate their distress in ways that can be off putting to others, through frustration response, irritability, risk-taking behavior, increased use of drugs and alcohol, sometimes,” said Andrews.
Coping skills like using drugs or alcohol may seem more socially acceptable in the military than going to therapy. But Andrews said these behaviors can be signs of real struggles with mental health.
Phelps didn’t turn to alcohol or drugs. But he wishes he had asked for help sooner. Because it’s hard to do that, he wants to tell his experiences to as many veterans as possible. He’s even considering taking a job telling his story to veterans and people experiencing mental health crises.
“My advice to anybody out there who’s struggling with anything like this is to just reach out,” said Phelps. “Don’t be scared of it.”
Phelps played in a wheelchair rugby tournament with fellow wounded veterans on the Air Force’s team in June. They competed against other military teams and took home a gold medal that day. For Phelps, that win was a high point.
He doesn’t know exactly where his life will go from here, but he’s optimistic. He’s learned he can’t always avoid triggers for his PTSD, like fireworks. But when he hears them now, he has a whole kit of mental-health tools to use.