Have you heard the saying "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?" I remember saying that so much growing up, I honestly think most of Gen-Z said it, it was a way to help stop a bully, but; did it actually work? Or did it only work because we said it enough and forced ourselves to believe it? Maybe that was the point, saying it over and over so that we did believe it so that words wouldn’t hurt so much. But words do hurt, sometimes more than being physically hurt. Over the years, research has shown that mental, emotional abuse can have the same effects on our health and body as physical pain.
But should we just ignore all hurtful words though? What happens if someone tells us they don’t want to be alive anymore, and you take that as hurtful towards you and do nothing? I'm sure you are probably asking, "how could someone telling you they don’t want to be alive anymore possibly hurt you?" If you've ever known and/or loved someone who is suffering from any mental health issue, then you understand without me having to explain, for those of you who haven't, I will try my best to explain.
Imagine someone you love dearly is suffering from severe anxiety and depression, it cripples them, makes it difficult for them to get out of bed, it is hard for them to function on a day-to-day basis; this is not them being lazy, this is what anxiety and depression can do to someone. You do your best to be there and be supportive and you always lend an ear and a shoulder (which that is the best thing you can do). You know that some of the things this person says are them expressing how they feel, and you know you shouldn’t take it to heart, but it still hurts. It still hurts you because you are trying your best to be there and be supportive, yet this person says that they are alone, and the world would be better off without them, and they wish they could just end things. That hurts YOU it does, it absolutely hurts, and you know that this person needs additional help and/or an intervention. Now, take that scenario and apply the "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Instead of doing something about what they said, you ignore their words because you don’t want it to hurt you; so, you do nothing, and that person ends up doing exactly what they told you they wished would happen. How would you feel then?
Sometimes, even though words hurt, and we know there was no harmful intent towards us behind them, we need to allow those words to hurt so that we act on them.
Now, what about actions? Have you heard the saying "actions speak louder than words."? I use this saying quite a bit and this saying hits close to home on so many different levels.
Story time: (a hard one)
In 2020, myself and a coworker (V.L.), that I still admire and consider a great mentor, lost a colleague (Val). You might remember bits of this, as I mentioned it briefly in a previous post, but I will divulge more detail now. Between 2017-2018 and even some of 2019, V.L. and I were serving as the re-detachment personnel while out units were deployed when Val came to one of our units. We both new Val from his previous assignments and working with him in passing, but we knew he was one of the best HR personnel in the state. As time went on in the deployment, V.L. and I kept having conversations about Val and how we both felt something was off with him. I was the acting HR for the deployment, and I was constantly returning his actions for errors and multiple different things, and we both know he would not normally make errors like that. I know Val was asked how he was doing and if he was ok, and he would always say "I'm good sarge", so we never pushed any harder. I remember talking to my BDE HR about it, as he knew him too, and he even said it seemed odd, but again, we never said anything. Because I was constantly kicking back Val's actions and waiting on different things from him, he inadvertently became a target; this is something I don't know if I will ever be able to forgive myself for. Since he was now a target, the Officer in Charge (OIC) was constantly on him, for everything and then some, it was wearing him down, to the point that none of us even imagined. His life became a living hell and I absolutely still blame myself for this, even though at the time I was doing my job, but; I should have done better. V.L. and I continued to talk about Val, and I continued to talk to my BDE HR about him too. Over and over, we all said something seemed off, but Val never showed any signs of being suicidal or depressed or anything like that, so again, we never said anything. Our military training for Suicide Intervention teaches to listen for words, more than watching for actions, and that, as I look back, was what we were doing, watching/looking/listening for the words instead of paying attention to his actions. When our units came back, it seemed to get worse for him. Val reached out to me, my BDE HR tech and V.L. to assist with his retirement packet, and he specifically sent it to my BDE HR tech because he didn’t think it would get to where it needed to be. That was a red flag to all of us, but he was retiring, so we again, did nothing but help him with his packet. That was the last interaction I had with Val. His replacement reported and myself and V.L and my BDE HR all thought things were ok and good, he was retired by that point, we were all happy for him. Then it happened. I was called into a meeting along with V.L. and the rest of the Battalion, we are all sitting in the conference room, with several on the conference line and this is literally what we were told, "SSG Val killed himself this morning", just like that. I gasped and looked directly at V.L., our eyes locked, and we both dug deep to not burst into tears, (I could tell by the look in V.L.'s eyes". When the OIC was talking about how it was nobody in that room's fault for what happened, I was screaming on the inside "yes it was! It was your fault and so many others!", but I kept it to myself because that was not the place and I knew that if I would have spoken up and said something, my career would have probably ended. That Battalion broke Val, just like they had broken T.S. only a few years before. As soon as we were released, I literally ran to my office, slammed the door and dropped to my knees and bawled my eyes out. I kept blaming myself because I should have spoken up when I first noticed something was off, both V.L. and my BDE HR all felt the same way. But none of us said a word. Could we have saved him? We will never know unfortunate, and it is probably not fair to either of us to continue to think we could have, as it just continues to eat at us.
When the day of the memorial came, me and only 2 others from that Battalion attended, to include the Battalion Commander, NO ONE ELSE WAS THERE. It pissed me off so incredibly much. Then I found out, that his family specifically requested that certain individuals not attend, as they were not welcome and it was later told to me, that Val had left a list and those individuals' names were on it. It all made sense at that point. But it still didn’t make anything any easier. When the Battalion was finally able to have a memorial service for him (and let me tell you how much convincing it took for that to happen), I stood in the formation behind V.L. and I broke. I stood behind someone that I respected and admired while I watched him sob and I couldn’t do anything until after it was then. I then followed, more like chased, him outside and refused to leave his side, and I even remember telling him "I'm not leaving, so don’t even try" and I let him vent and just stood there to support him. When he was ready, I walked back inside with him, and we both walked up to the memorial to say out goodbyes. I stayed behind him so he could have his time. I forgot to mention, when the memorial service was announced, I made sure to put it out to my unit, since it was during our Annual Training… it didn’t make it to half the Soldiers and one of my own Soldiers, upon finding out the day of the memorial, broke at finding out the news and we had to put him on suicide watch and gave him a 24/7 battle buddy-he is ok.
To me, and for me, when I say "actions speak louder than words" this is why. Val may never had said the words (to us at least), but his actions spoke volumes and we all stayed silent because "he never expressed via words he was not doing good". His actions were a cry for help in my opinion and his loss impacted me in so many ways. I pay attention a lot more to actions that I do words. I speak up anytime someone's actions throw up a red flag for me. I refuse to stay silent anymore, I can't lose another battle buddy, especially if there was something I could have done to prevent it.
Words, and lack of words have meaning, even hurtful words that are said out of anger have meaning. Actions, and lack of actions, speak volumes. Choose your words carefully and wisely and watch for actions or lack of actions. If you know someone that just seems off, not their usual self, speak up now, before it's too late.