This is going to come out way more bougie-sounding than it is, but: I recently did an interview with Donnie Boivin for his Success Champions podcast. For this show, Donnie interviews “Ordinary People, Entrepreneurs, Veterans, First Responders, Business Owners and visionaries that have a story to tell.” I guess that’s me. The Veteran part.
I’ve never really written about it on this blog, because it is a time in my life I closed the door on and gently walked away from. I didn’t run.. it wasn’t a terrible time, it was just a time. I was a Navy Nurse for about 6 years and I got out as Lieutenant (a “Captain” in most other branches) in October 2017. But I think it’s important to talk about this, because I am a veteran, I was an officer, I am a woman, and I am in recovery.
I stopped drinking (the first, serious time) 3 months before I got out of the Navy, in June 2017. I didn’t talk much about it at my Navy job: “I’m not drinking right now,” “I’m trying to lose weight.” There is this air of hyper-professionalism when it comes to the military, of course, and so even to murmur “I don’t drink” would raise some curious eyebrows and probably gossip. Scuttlebutt, if you will (and I won’t). Or worse – being forced into SARP (Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation Program, which probably wouldn’t have been a bad idea for me). I just kept my sobriety to myself save for maybe 1 or 2 close co-worker friends. When I finally got out of the Navy, officially on October 30, 2017, I was almost 2 months sober (the second time) and not thinking much about drinking. I had started this blog in secret but still wasn’t yell-from-the-rooftops “in recovery.”
I actually haven’t thought much about how my drinking or recovery was related to that period of my life, mostly because I just don’t think about that period to often these days. Since my recovery coincided with my exit from the military, the exit was a bit eclipsed. It was like I was sitting, tapping my foot, waiting to be out so I could start screaming from the rooftops about my drinking and sobriety. I never felt comfortable talking about it while active duty, and for good reason (addressed below). I had once written about my problem drinking and my divorce in a previous blog, and my boyfriend at the time (who was also a Naval Officer) offered this feedback (as gently as he could): “I mean, it’s good, but you should probably wait til you’re out before you share something like this.” Roger that. Delete.
I realize now that “only 1% of the US population serves in the military” and that maybe what’s completely normal, boring, eye-rolly stuff to me is a strange animal to most other people in my life, especially as I build my civilian friend base. So I’ve decided to share a little (as best I can), with those new friends and old co-workers alike, on the culture of the military and what its like to a be a female/veteran/officer with a pension for drinking and the gift of recovery.
I was an Officer, meaning I had a Bachelors degree and a job that the Navy deemed as worthy of being saluted (dang right – salute every nurse!). In short, you have 2 groups in the military (CWOs, earmuffs): the enlisted (may or may not have a degree, typically the less favorable jobs), and the officers (must have a bachelors degree, known for highly creative work-dodging, always referred to respectfully as Sir/Ma’am). The joke is, don’t call an enlisted person Sir or Ma’am because you may be met with “don’t call me that, I work for a living.” And I mean, yeah.
So Officers “outrank” the enlisted as a whole, so even if I had 1 day in the Navy as an Officer, an enlisted person with 18 years would salute me because I *technically* outrank him or her. There’s a whole dynamic and subculture here that I won’t get into because Senior Chiefs still give me anxiety and I’m even scared one of you is reading this right now, but that’s the gist of it. The expectation – no, requirement – is that Officers and enlisted do not fraternize, that we do not become “unduly familiar” with one another. Same goes for fellow officers in your chain of command. That means no hanging out outside work, sharing too much about one’s personal life, no lending money, no dating. And definitely no telling each other how you blacked out the weekend before and don’t remember where you left your shoes and how you’re so fucking hungover today you could die (you can’t call out of the Navy).
I wish I were able to cross those lines and talk about my drinking and recovery with everyone while I was active duty, with enlisted and fellow Officers alike. I know we had alot more in common than we thought, and I know that story-telling saves lives. That’s why I do it now. To be clear, I don’t fault the Navy in anyway for their ideals – we must maintain good order and discipline because, well, it’s the fucking military. The rank structure isn’t a bad thing, in fact it’s crucial to keeping a ship running (metaphorically speaking because I don’t know shit about ships). Simply put: I couldn’t talk about what I wanted to talk about, especially on social media, lest my subordinates see it and lose respect for me.
I mean, even now, I will post about how many days I have or the recovery-related things I am doing, and an enlisted person will comment “you rock Ma’am!” or “you got this Ma’am!” and my heart warms while my face cringes. Because I am finally able to show the world who I am, right down to the very people I was always supposed to “hold it all together” in front of, but also they clearly still think of me as some superior, they still address me with the respectful “Ma’am” even on facebook, even almost a year since I’ve worn a uniform. And my ego says “should you really be posting about this?” My ego, sounding alot like my ex, says “it’s good, but also maybe you shouldn’t do brave things because you might get hurt…” Or, I could do brave things and prevent others from getting more and more hurt, from leading a life they no longer love, at the risk of losing what minute reputation as a decent Officer I ever had.
I dedicate this post to all my former Navy (and Army and Marine Corps and I guess Air Force) shipmates, enlisted and fellow Officers alike. Just know that if I was ever sitting next to you or working alongside you on one of your bad/hungover/anxiety-ridden days, I was struggling too. No matter how much distance the military places between us based on their definitions of “superior” and “subordinate,” no matter what degree you have or how much you make, know that nobody is safe from addiction. No metaphorical pedestal is incapable of tumbling over. Butter bars don’t keep you from getting black out drunk and doing stupid shit you regret for years to come, and oak leaves don’t either. I may not have been able to be there for you then, but I am now. Please feel free to reach out to me… and please, don’t ever stop calling me Ma’am.