Swanton, Ohio --
“I struggle with depression.”
Master Sgt. Crystal Carper, a first sergeant assigned to the Ohio National Guard’s 180th Fighter Wing, shares her story of battling depression and suicide.
Depression is a disease that can cause one to feel isolated, hopeless and helpless and alone. But, Carper is not alone.
Affecting more than 320 million people worldwide, depression is the leading cause of disability between the ages of 15 to 44, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
“I have struggled with depression since high school,” said Carper. “I never thought I was pretty enough, or smart enough, or interesting enough.”
Throughout high school, Carper felt a void that she couldn’t quite identify and didn’t know how to fix, but that seemed to change as she became old enough and started dating.
“When I started dating, the attention I was getting from those relationships made me feel better,” explained Carper. “It filled that void in me that I couldn’t quite fix myself and I became dependent on that.”
While the attention filled the void, it was temporary. Each time a relationship would end, Carper would blame herself, sure that she had done something wrong, the rejection hurting more and the void growing larger each time.
Carper was hopeful things would change in the fall of 1994 when she made the decision to enlist, joining the 180th Fighter Wing.
“I was in a relationship that was going very well, right before I left for basic military training, but it didn’t work out the way I had hoped,” said Carper. “And I thought that going away to basic training was a good thing at that time. I thought it was the diversion I needed to not punish myself, to not torment myself trying to figure out what it was I had done wrong. I was completely taken away from the situation.”
Not too long after basic training and military technical school, Carper began working at the 180FW and found herself in a new relationship, one that became serious with talks of marriage.
“I remember thinking, this is the one!” Carper said.
But after several months the relationship ended, leaving Carper wondering, once again, what she had done wrong and she became consumed with trying to fix the relationship.
“This was the one, and I lost it,” Carper said. “I don’t know what I did, but I’m going to fix it. How can I fix it? I must have broken it, I always do. How can I fix it?”
She couldn’t fix it, and this time, the hurt didn’t go away.
“I had two friends in the office who knew what was going on. I confided in them and they were compassionate,” said Carper. “But after a couple of weeks, I stopped confiding in them. They didn’t understand. No one understood.”
“I was in so much pain,” she said. “I didn’t know how to stop that pain.”
Carper explained that as the weeks went by she just couldn’t bring herself to get up and go to work each day.
“I started calling in regularly, saying that I was sick,” Carper said. “I isolated myself. I would stay in my room all day. I was home for hours and hours on end. Alone.”
“Then, I decided that I felt better when I was sleeping,” she said. “I don’t’ feel this pain. I’m going to sleep away the pain, but one can only sleep so much.”
When she couldn’t sleep away the pain, Carper turned to sleep aids for help.
“I started to take more and more of those pills,” she said. “I started to feel dull. It seemed to be desensitizing me.”
“I’ll never forget, my dad came into my room, which he didn’t often do, and I saw him cry for the first and only time in my life, as he was trying to understand what I was going through,” Carper said. “But, by that time, I was so far into the grips of depression that it didn’t even phase me.”
After weeks of Carper isolating herself in her room, sleeping for hours on end and refusing to confide in her parents, her mother took matters into her own hands and called the doctor.
During the appointment, Carper’s doctor explained depression and how it impacted a person, emphasized that a healthy diet and exercise were paramount in maintaining good mental health and sent her home with a prescription of antidepressants.
But Carper wasn’t interested in what her doctor had to say. Convinced that she was fine, she never took those pills. She didn’t exercise and she didn’t eat.
“I never took those pills. I didn’t exercise. I couldn’t even get out of that room. I just wanted to sleep it away,” said Carper. “So I started taking more pills. I just wanted to sleep away the pain, maybe when I wake up I’ll feel better.”
“I remember shaking those pills and I’d take them. I’d wake up, shake more pills and take them, but I kept waking up and I kept not feeling better,” Carper continued. “Eventually, I took enough pills that I wasn’t going to wake up.”
That day, her mother happened to come home early from work and found Carper unconscious.
“The next thing I know, I woke up in an emergency room, wondering where I was and what had happened,” Carper said. “I learned that my stomach had been pumped. They had used charcoal to absorb the poisons I had been putting into my body all those weeks.”
Once the confusion wore off, Carper became angry. Angry that she had woken up to the pain again.
“It wasn’t long before my mother came in to see me,” Carper said. “I was so mad at her. The things I said to her I can’t imagine saying to anyone, but I said those thing to her and I hated her in that moment because she brought me back from it. I couldn’t understand why she would do that.”
Carper remained in the hospital for three days before being released to go home. They had offered help and resources, but she wasn’t receptive, telling the hospital staff that she didn’t want help.
“So I went home,” Carper said. “It wasn’t long after being home that I fell back into the habit of trying to sleep more, taking more pills.”
Two weeks later, on her 25th birthday, Carper’s mother and two of her coworkers came home to take her to lunch and found her nearly unconscious in her room.
After struggling to wake her up, 9-1-1 was called and Carper was taken back to the hospital to have her stomach pumped once again.
“This time, I wasn’t allowed to go home,” Carper said.
Carper was admitted to the hospital for five days where she had no choice but to work through her depression.
“I was resistant to it. I was so resistant to it those first couple of days,” said Carper. “I just didn’t want to open up to anyone. I just didn’t care anymore.”
Without pills available to help her sleep, Carper eventually opened up and became receptive to getting help.
“I didn’t have any pills at my disposal to help me sleep,” said Carper. “I had no choice but to reckon with what I was feeling.”
Once she made the decision to participate in the therapy sessions, listening and finally talking, sharing her story, she realized that she was not alone in the struggle with depression.
“Do you know how impactful that was?” asked Carper. “Sitting in that circle, with that group of people, struggling with so much. They were there. They got to that moment. Maybe in different ways. Different things got them to that point, but they were there, they were talking through it, working through it and I realized that I could do that too. I could lean on them.”
“Those five days. It changed me,” said Carper. “I realized that I was trying to cope with something that I just didn’t have the tools to cope with. I only wished I would have recognized that sooner. I caused a lot of people pain. I caused myself pain.”
After seeking help, Carper learned to recognize the symptoms and feelings. She learned to understand depression and that it is a disease, not just a feeling or a dark place she allowed herself to get to. She knew when it was time to reach out and confide in a friend or a loved one.
“What I learned from all of that, is that I wasn’t weak. It wouldn’t have been week of me to ask for help,” said Carper. “I wasn’t strong enough. I wasn’t equipped to deal with this on my own. Depression. Real depression, not just sadness.”
Carper also learned that she needed to connect and communicate with friends and family, both at home and at work and began developing her own Wingman network of those she could reach out to and lean on, day or night, when she felt the struggles of life were becoming too much.
“What I did differently when I struggled with depression after that is I recognized it. I knew when it was getting to be too much. I knew that feeling and I knew it very well,” Carper said. “I reached out. I called people and say ‘talk to me please.’ I’d bother them in the middle of the night. I didn’t want to go back to that place. It was a horrible place and I am not going back.”
More than 20 years later, with the support of her husband and children, her network of family and friends, and her military career still going strong, Carper is speaking out and sharing her story in hopes that she can reach even one Airman to remind them that they are not alone.
“This all happened 22 years ago, and while that wasn’t the last time I have struggled with depression throughout my life,” said Carper. “It was truly the last time I felt that ending my life was the only way to end my pain.”
“None of this changes the fact that I have depression and, sometimes, I need help,” said Carper. “It’s ok and I now know that and I never want anyone else to get to that point.”
“I just wanted to convey my story so that people know, that if they are in a place like that, you are not alone,” Carper said.
“Talk to people. Talk to anyone. Never stop talking.”