Photos courtesy of Rick Loomis, Logan Mock-Bunting
echosight photo illustration by Benjamin Lowy
Army veteran, Andrew O'Brien, travels across the country as a suicide prevention speaker. O'Brien, who is an attempt survivor himself, spoke about his childhood trauma and his experiences during the Iraq war. The following are excerpts from our conversation.
"There was one instance when I had looked inside of a truck with some deceased soldiers, and a little bit of their remains were still left in the truck and it just kind of put me into a spiral. It wasn’t just the war. It wasn’t just Iraq. That was just the last straw that broke the camel’s back for everything to hit me at once."
"When you’re deployed your mind kind of shuts down. It doesn’t allow you to process things until you get home... As soon as my mind realized I was in a safe place, was when it was trying to process everything. And it wasn’t working. It hurt more than it helped. I didn’t know how to handle it so I started depending on alcohol."
"That day, I felt weak because everyone I deployed with was fine (in my mind). No one ever talked about it. Everyone kind of ignored it and acted like it was a bad dream, and moved on. I was the only one who felt like I couldn’t move on. I had never felt that weak in my life… I felt hopeless. I felt like there is no reason for continuing because every night I close my eyes, I have nightmares. Every time I go into a restaurant I freak out with anxiety and have a panic attack because I felt unsafe. Every time I cuddled with a woman, I felt trapped… like I didn’t have an exit, I didn’t have a way out. That’s what I felt like that day. And I told myself, do I really want to do this for another 60 years?"
"Normal meant to me was to actually be able to go out to restaurants, go out on dates and not feel paranoid. I could go dance somewhere and just enjoy it and not think about who’s to my left and who’s to my right and who’s behind me. Normal is being able to close your eyes and not worry about what you’re going to dream about… Every time I closed my eyes, I was scared because I didn’t know what the dream was going to be. I was just living in constant fear of myself."
“I was angry. I didn’t want to kill myself, but the only way to end the pain was to end my life. That’s why I didn’t cut myself. I didn’t want it to be painful. The whole reason I wanted to take my own life was to end the pain. ”
Andrew later introduced me to his brother, Lee, who is also a veteran. While Lee and Andrew have a very close relationship and had parallel perspectives, neither men were fully aware of each other's feelings before Andrew's suicide attempt.
"When I got the call, I was overwhelmed with a mixture of emotions but the top one has to be anger... not just at him for not talking to me but myself for feeling like I failed him when he needed me the most."
"I just wanted to tell him that everyone's level of pain acceptance is on different levels. He had told me that the reason he didn't come to me for help was that he didn't feel like his combat experience would live up to mine. So in the end, I told him what I had wished someone would've told me in my darkest hour."
"One thing that I can tell everyone that thinks that their problems are worse than anyone else's is this: One should never forget their place in this life and the uneducated observation of another's life is where ignorance gains the power to spread. Unless you are a psychiatrist you have absolutely no place deciding how much pain an individual is carrying from an experience, everyone's personal definition of 'traumatic' varies on a large scale."
Contributor: Lee O'Brien
Occupation: Keynote Speaker/ Wellness Coach
Location: Bedford, TX
Rank: Sergeant US ARMY Retired
Dates of Service : 2004- 2011
"My brother was just angry. A lot of people, when they think of suicide, they think it is selfish and they take it personally, like it is something against them. That’s how my brother took it and I’m not mad at him for that at all. That’s how I would take it too. So he got mad, then he cussed me out, then he told me how much he loved me."
"He actually said 'I’m not speaking to you as your brother right now, I’m speaking to you as a veteran, you have a right to have feelings towards the things that you witnessed and the things that you’ve been through in your entire life, not just war but your childhood too.' And it was nice for someone to finally give me permission to feel."
"No one is wired exactly the same. It is not a competition. If you want to have a competition about who has the worst PTSD, please win. I don't want to win that contest... I don’t care if you have PTSD from a boyfriend who broke your heart or a cat that you ran over, I don’t care what the reason is, because everyone has the right to it. You can’t tell someone that they’re not allowed to feel. That’s inhumane…"
Contributor: Andrew O’Brien
Occupation: Suicide Prevention Speaker
Location: Waco, Texas
Rank: Specialist US Army Retired
Dates of Service: 2008-2009