Survivor harnesses resilience to overcome invisible wounds

eality hit when then Airman First Class Brittany Johnson of the 49th Logistics Readiness Squadron left the hospital in September 2010 after a week-long stay for sexual and physical assault. “I didn’t feel like myself,” recalls Johnson, now a technical sergeant with the 36th Civil Engineering Squadron. “I couldn’t find joy in activities anymore.”

While at home on convalescent leave, Johnson found herself reliving memories of her assault. She couldn’t move on from her traumatic experience and started having nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks. Waking up in a dark room or coming across reminders of her attacker, like a similar last name, haircut or car model he drove, would trigger her symptoms.

Her symptoms had a large impact on her daily life. She became distrustful of people and withdrew from personal interactions, including her 19-month-old daughter. Johnson lost interest in activities she had enjoyed before, even those as simple as taking a walk. “I wanted to sleep all day even though I couldn’t fall asleep,” recalls Johnson as she often was too tired to get out of bed.

Johnson felt her life slipping away from her control until a conversation with her mother made her pause, “How can you take care of anyone else until you take care of yourself.” Johnson remembers her mother’s words, “How can you pour from a cup that’s empty?” Those words stuck with Johnson. Having the support of her family gave Johnson the strength to reach out for help so she could take back power over her life.

In October, one month after leaving the hospital, Johnson made an appointment at the mental health clinic and talked to her supervisor, as a courtesy while still on convalescent leave, to let him know she was seeking treatment. The provider diagnosed her with PTSD, anxiety and depression and recommended a mix of therapy and medication.

“In the beginning, I was the roadblock,” Johnson talks about her early days of treatment. “I was so shut down that I had a hard time opening up and talking about what happened.” But the providers were supportive and worked with Johnson to personalize her treatment, including helping Johnson open up by switching her to a different therapist with whom she felt a more personal connection.

As Johnson went back to work in December, she at first tried to hide her state of mind and “put on a happy face” to show she was OK. But after going home from work, she wouldn’t eat and would feel sad and cry most days. “I didn’t know what normal or happy were anymore,” Johnson said.

Then Johnson’s leadership stepped in. They supported Johnson’s desire to return to work, and also encouraged her to seek any additional help she needed. Unit support was important to Johnson, and it helped her overcome concerns about seeking various resources to help work through her experiences.

“My leadership would check in on me asking questions like, ‘How has it been going?’ or ‘Is there anything I could do to help you?’ And they really meant it,” Johnson recalled. “My supervisor at the time really cared about my well-being.” Her supervisor also made sure she took the time to go to her mental health appointments and that she wasn’t scheduled for any work tasks or meetings during those times. “We have a great relationship and still talk to this day even though he’s retired. He still checks in on me.”

With trusted advocates behind her, Johnson turned her life around. “Treatment helped me regain control over my life,” Johnson said. Seeking help gave her the tools to understand her feelings and how to manage her symptoms. “I started to recognize my triggers,” Johnson added. “I understood when my panic-attacks would begin, so I would pause to breathe and use coping techniques, like the 5-4-3-2-1, method to take back control over the situation.”

As Johnson started to learn how to manage her invisible wounds, her weekly therapy sessions became biweekly, monthly, and finally, as needed. Within the first two years of treatment, Johnson completed medication and therapy, after which her therapist told Johnson she could still set up an appointment whenever she needed to talk. “I still occasionally go to therapy to maintain my mental health and stay resilient.”

“Seeking treatment definitely helped my career and made my life better overall,” Johnson said. “I’m better able to help myself and others. I’ve learned to listen and process my emotions and can now take a step back from a situation and process what’s going on first before reacting.”

Seeking treatment also helped Johnson create a more supportive culture for Airmen at work, especially as she continued to move up the ranks and took on more leadership responsibilities over the last decade. A lot of Airmen now come to her for advice, “They’re comfortable asking me for help or talking with me about personal hardships or challenges in their lives.”

Johnson wishes more Airmen would ask for help to look after themselves. “You can’t properly do your job if you’re not 100% OK, especially if you’re in a leadership position,” Johnson said. “It’s a snowball effect, everything starts with you.” Johnson has the following advice for Airmen, caregivers, and leaders:

“Airmen. Take care of yourself first. Never be ashamed of what you went through. Never be ashamed to speak out. Never be ashamed to get help.”

“Caregivers. Be patient with your Airman. Encourage them to figure out what works for them, but they have to do the work themselves. Treatment won’t be beneficial unless they are willing to do the work to get better.”

“Leaders. Be empathetic towards your Airmen and be ready to have difficult conversations. Do whatever it takes to create a supportive culture for your Airmen, so they are comfortable and trust you enough to come forward and ask for help.”

Reality hit when then Airman First Class Brittany Johnson of the 49th Logistics Readiness Squadron left the hospital in September 2010 after a week-long stay for sexual and physical assault.

Reality hit when then Airman First Class Brittany Johnson of the 49th Logistics Readiness Squadron left the hospital in September 2010 after a week-long stay for sexual and physical assault. As Johnson started to learn how to manage her invisible wounds, her weekly therapy sessions became biweekly, monthly, and finally, as needed. (Air Force Wounded Warrior Program courtesy graphic)

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