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Colonel gets help, advocates for others

Sep. 25, 2012 - 12:02PM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 25, 2012 - 12:02PM  |  
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Grappling with the death of her 3-year-old daughter the year before, Michelle Roberts was in a new high-stress job at a new post when she decided to stop taking her anti-depressants.

For a month, her mind was a "tug-of-war" between the rational and irrational thinking, she said. Then she decided she had to take action. Otherwise, she knew she would self-destruct.

"It wasn't until I asked for help that I started to truly get back to a healthy place," she said. "The big step was asking for the help. If I hadn't done that, I don't think I would have gotten out of that downward spiral."

Today, Col. Michelle Roberts is the director of public affairs for the U.S. Army Military District of Washington. She began to share her story in 2008, just as she watched depression emerge as a major issue in the Army.

"In writing about it, I wanted people to have hope," she said. "I feel I'm a much stronger person, and I wouldn't be that person if I [hadn't gone] through that."

In January 2003, Roberts' daughter Alyssa died suddenly after living three years with a collection of severe birth defects. She was cared for by parents who didn't know which day would be her last.

Then one morning, Alyssa's vital signs crashed; she was taken to the hospital as Roberts sat in the front of the ambulance. Roberts made a decision at the hospital, and doctors removed her daughter from life support.

Suddenly the intense schedule that revolved around Alyssa's care was gone, leaving a tremendous void. Roberts' grieving turned into depression.

"I was sitting there, thinking, ‘What's my mission now?' I was a little lost," she said. "It was weird because you get used to the sound of machines, of ventilators, and the silence was deafening."

She struggled, reliving her daughter's death in her sleep and waking each morning at the exact time her daughter died, 4:20 a.m. Passing ambulances would trigger flashbacks, and she would hear a ventilator that wasn't there.

As she threw herself into her work, it all worsened. "I put on a brave front about getting back to normal, telling everyone I was doing OK, but I wasn't doing OK," she said.

She transferred to Heidelberg, Germany, and a stressful job as secretary of the general staff of V Corps. At the time, she had been prescribed anti-depressants, but she stopped taking them.

"There was a perfect storm brewing for me," she said. "It was the depression … moving away from our church — our support network — to a different country, to a high-stress job. And then I went off my medication because I didn't want to be dependent on it."

After three months, the suicidal thoughts began. "I'd be driving down the autobahn, thinking about driving into the bridge abutment," she said. After one month of feeling like she was "teetering on a precipice," she decided she needed help.

"That was the day I walked out of my office and into the chaplain's office and said, ‘I need help,' " she said. "That started the process of starting my way back."

This was 2004, and PTSD had not been acknowledged in the Army as a major issue. Yet she was diagnosed with PTSD, though not in the classic sense. Over time, she learned to deal with her feelings.

"The process of coming back, my therapy, was talking about it again and again," she said. "Eventually the emotions were less raw. The images are less intense, and you back away to where it's not hitting you as hard."

Counseling and therapy worked well enough that Roberts did not have to go back onto anti-depressants, she said. In 2006, she deployed to Iraq, mentally "back in a healthy place," she said.

Roberts, who has since divorced and remarried, self-published a book under a pen name in 2008 about her struggle, "Forged by the Fire of Adversity."

That year, she became the public affairs officer for Gen. Peter Chiarelli, now retired, and then the Army vice chief of staff and the service's leading advocate for behavioral health issues.

One day over lunch, Roberts decided to reveal to Chiarelli her own struggle with depression, she said. She told him that in spite of her appearance as a squared-away soldier, " ‘I was there.' "

"I told him you can't go into this thinking, ‘them, they,'" she said. "It has to be ‘us' because no one is immune to this."

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