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After Crashing, Stephen Found a Community

APRIL 18, 2019 | 4-minute read

Stephen can piece some of that night back together.

It was the day after Thanksgiving, in 2011. After working a long 13-hour day, the U.S. Navy Veteran grabbed dinner with some friends. They had a few drinks, so he left his truck behind as they continued on to the bars across town. He planned to sleep on his boss’ couch at the end of the night.

The next thing he remembers is waking up, handcuffed to a hospital bed.

At some point, he had crashed into a telephone pole. The accident was nearly fatal.

“That’s when my life truly changed,” Stephen says. “That was my lowest moment. … I hit rock bottom.”

Stephen, U.S. Navy Veteran

But from rock bottom, Stephen has climbed back to where he stands today, helping others as a behavior coach and mentor with a local community organization. He hasn’t done it alone, and he hopes that he can “pay it forward” to thank those who helped him along the way.

Stephen sees a little bit of himself in the people he helps now. He knows what it’s like to face challenges: His father had been abusive; as a child, he would run away from home; and later, he would “self-medicate” with alcohol. Substance use issues led to his early departure from the Navy, and afterward, he found himself withdrawing, facing sleepless nights, dealing with headaches, and gaining weight.

Eventually, Stephen was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder.

“To all the Veterans out there,” he says, “if you need help, if you see yourself going through these similar motions where you’re drinking by yourself, or not taking care of yourself, you’re gaining weight, or you find yourself isolated — don’t. Let your light shine. There’s people out here that care for you, that want to help you. Just open yourself up. Let it come in.”

There’s people out here that care for you, that want to help you. Just open yourself up. Let it come in. Stephen

That’s what Stephen’s most proud of. He’s gone back to school. He’s followed his dream of working in the mental health field. But as much as anything, his major feat was simply opening up.

“I’m really proud that I opened up and put down the guard, broke down those walls,” he says. “There were people that wanted to help me that were there to help me, but I always had a wall up and the tough guy persona. … ‘Oh, I got this. I got this.’ That was always my mentality: I can do this by myself. But, you can’t. It’s community. Tap into that community; we’ll help each other out.”

Stephen has seen that firsthand.

In the wake of his accident, a Veterans court connected him with Ken, a Vet Center counselor. Ken was not only a therapist but also a mentor. He taught Stephen how to plan — for life and for the moments that might be difficult.

Stephen saw in Ken a Veteran who was working in the mental health field, just as he hoped to do one day. “He helped guide me along the way,” Stephen says. “He saw me from my lowest to me graduating and having a big-boy job. So without the Veterans court and the Vet Center, I’m not standing here today in front of you. I owe Ken a lot. He helped change my life.”

There were other mentors who helped, like Greg at his local community college and Nancy who he met at a leadership course. And he’s discovered tools to help in his recovery as well: journaling, writing, exercising, running. He’s even worked at a community farm, growing fruits and vegetables.

But as much as anything, it’s been the people.

“Me standing in front of you today,” he says, “is just a testament to the people in my life that helped me along the way.”


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