It's been nearly three years since I officially ended my Active Duty service. The first six months of my transition were rough. After speaking to a lot of fellow former service members, I realize that my experience is not an outlier, but rather, it's the norm.
Civilian stress vs. Military stress.
Hardest part about the military... logging into sites that don't take a CAC card.
In the Marine Corps, I was trained to deal with all sorts of tactical stresses. But civilian stresses? Not so much. When it came to work, insurance, or liberty, I could blame Uncle Sam for everything:
- "Sorry, can't make that baptism/wedding/ graduation/ (insert family event here). I have to move to Japan for work."
- "Yeah, the healthcare system is fugged; I'm on Tricare though, watch anything good on Netflix lately?"
- "I put my name on a list to live off base, but if it doesn't work out, we'll just be put in the tower, end of story."
- "I PCS in June. I'll either go to Camp LeJeune or get sucked into the vortex that is the Pentagon. Not much I can do."
In the military, every moment of my life was planned out for me, until suddenly... it wasn't. When I "got out," all I had was choice, and I didn't always make the right ones. In fact, it sometimes seemed like there were no right choices--just varying degrees of wrong.
I lost my sense of purpose.
There wasn't a big picture for me anymore.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Robert Knapp/Released)
I was actually embarrassed about these realizations for a long time. I was a Marine Corps Officer. I did alpha stuff for a living. There are literally thousands of movies made about my old job.
How could I fess up to being lost and stressed? It felt like I would be admitting defeat to an enemy that hundreds of millions of Americans deal with every single day. That's not very alpha.
On top of the stress and state of general lostness, my sense of purpose was gone. I felt that my time in uniform had been helping the greater cause. I was helping people. At the very least, I was impacting my Marines' lives and helping them become better every day.
It's a lot harder to become excited about sending emails and filing TPS reports in the civilian world when it seems that the only people that are being helped are the company owners or stockholders. That's not really a mission statement I can get behind.
My health suffered.
1 turns into 10 very quickly.
I had spent the most testosterone-packed years of my life under the government's thumb. I signed up at 17. For a decade, I was expected to be: sober, on time, awake at 0600, on-call 24/7, and never take more than 96 hours of liberty/leave.
As soon as I was let off the leash, I had some catching up to do. I slept when the sun was up and spent all night howling at the moon for months. It took a toll on my body; I gained weight, I lost energy, and I got sick a lot.
Worst of all, I stopped training.
My cornerstone was gone.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Drake Nickels)
Staying up late and spending all day stressing about "coulda, shoulda, wouldas" made me lose sight of the one thing I actually had control over. Me. More specifically, my training and diet.
This was the hardest-hitting of all my issues because it made everything else worse. It's a lot harder to stay healthy if all you're putting into your body is junk food and not moving.
Exercise is a natural stress reliever. Without it, I was living in a state of chronic stress.
I had the all too common reaction to physical training that I've seen dozens of times first hand. No more PFT...no more PT for me. The overwhelming majority of us do it. It's like the military induces some traumatic memory of what exercise is supposed to make us feel like as well as how much we should hate ourselves for not working out.
It becomes a physical punishment when we train and a mental punishment when we don't train.
Recognizing that it doesn't have to be either one of those punishments was the key to me getting back in the gym.
Combating civilian stress with training.
I knew I had to make changes. I wasn't in the position to come up with some grand overarching ethos that would cure all my woes. I needed something simple.
I started by making my training mandatory. I knew it made me feel better. Having stress hormones pumping through my veins 24/7 was the literal reason I felt like I was failing. Training hard helps relieve some of that cortisol and frees up the body to actually repair itself. That was the state I needed to get into regularly if I ever wanted to think clearly enough to actually turn my business into a success.
I started losing some of the extra fat I had put on, I got stronger, my performance increased, but the most important benefit of training hard was that I didn't hate myself anymore.
Getting your sense of purpose back.
My military service was a high-point in my life, but it isn't the summit I need to plant my flag on. That's much higher, and I have a lot more work to do. I was great then, but I'm greater every day that I decide to train and sink my teeth into another bite-sized piece of life.
The Marine Corps made it easy to feel like I was part of something bigger and helping people. Military service isn't the only option in life to help other people though. By taking care of myself first, getting my training in line, and staying healthy, I'm able to take all the skills and discipline I gained from my service and directly apply them to my current mission.
I know that objectively my life looked fine, but internally, I felt like I was crumbling. Plenty of us live our whole lives with that feeling. I'm lucky that I managed to shift my perception after only six months of the vicious cycle.
Maybe it took you years.
Maybe you're still in it.
Maybe you never served in the military, but you experienced a different transition that made you feel helpless, alone, and chronically stressed.
It doesn't matter. Our perception is our reality. If your reality isn't great, the only thing you can do is change your perception.
The best perception shifter I know of is...training hard.
If you aren't training, start training.
If this resonates with you at all, I'd love to hear your story no matter what stage of the process you're currently in. This link will take you to a survey that will allow you to do just that.
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